Posts tagged ‘Fiction’

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

 

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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

 

 

September 5, 2017

Bestsellers in July and August

by Team Riverside

Excellent fiction, a good dose of feminism and fun children’s books make up our top 20 Jennifer Bell THE SMOKING HOURGLASS.pngfrom the last two months.  In reverse order:

Jennifer Bell – The Smoking Hourglass

Jennifer Bell – The Crooked Sixpence

Noam Chomsky – Optimism over Despair

J K Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Emma Cline – The Girls

Matt Haig – How to Stop Time

Elizabeth Strout – My Name is Lucy Barton

Sam Bourne – To Kill the President

Paul Beatty – The Sellout

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We should all be Feminists

Haruki Murakami – Desire (Vintage Minis)

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

David Szalay – All that Man Is

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

Deborah Levy – Hot Milk

Lisa Owens – Not Working

Zadie Smith – Swing Time

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Naomi Alderman – The Power

… and at number one, we are proud to announce:

Peppa goes to London!

We predict that this month several new things will fly off the shelves – including Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I am, I am, I am and John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies.

 

 

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 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 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

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

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

 

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

March 18, 2017

Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

February 18, 2017

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 8, 2017

Riverside bestsellers of 2016

by Team Riverside

We’re quite impressed with the books we’ve sold this year… Among our top 30 were:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J K Rowling

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

We Should all be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back – Neil Gaiman

The Little Book of Hygge – Meik Wiking

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics – Tim Marshall

The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Crooked Sixpence – Jennifer Bell

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

Sweet Caress – William Boyd

The Silk Roads: a New History of the World – Peter Frankopan

The Dog Who Dared to Dream – Sun-mi Hwang

Trump and Me – Mark Singer

Politics and the English Language – George Orwell

Black Holes – the Reith Lectures – Stephen Hawking

Several of these are Team Riverside favourites so we’re feeling pretty chipper about it all. What will be the surprise hits of 2017?

January 8, 2017

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

November 5, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 18, 2016

Serious Sweet, by A L Kennedy

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

September 7, 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 20, 2016

Dead Man’s Blues, by Ray Celestin

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Mantle, £12.99, out nowJacket cover

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 8, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 31, 2016

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 12, 2016

Neil Gaiman/Chris Riddell signed copies now in store!

by Team Riverside

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

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

July 5, 2016

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

June 29, 2016

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2016

This Must be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 10, 2016

I am Henry Finch, by Viviane Schwarz and Alexis Deacon

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 2, 2016

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

April 16, 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

by Team Riverside

tenant of wild

Paperback, Vintage, 7.99

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

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

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

Review by Emily

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March 28, 2016

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hutchinson, £16.99, out nowHelen Dunmore EXPOSURE

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 15, 2016

Lila: Marilynne Robinson

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review by Emily

January 12, 2016

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

It continues in a similar fashion.

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Emily