Posts tagged ‘Review’

October 23, 2017

Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Maclehose Press, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

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October 15, 2017

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

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

 

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 14, 2017

In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan                                

July 17, 2017

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

June 21, 2017

To London, Poems by Michael Shann

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan           

June 20, 2017

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

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

January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

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

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

January 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

October 16, 2016

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 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

June 19, 2016

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £9.99, out nowOliver Sacks GRATITUDE

Gratitude is a final gift from the excellent neurologist and writer of popular science, Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015.  These short but beautiful pieces encapsulate all that is best about his writing.  Humane, kind, interesting and funny, they offer his reflections on a life well lived from one who knew its end would come shortly.  Shortly after finding out his cancer was back and inoperable, he wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.  This does not mean I am finished with life.  On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight”.

Probably best known for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks’ own life has not been without bumps, as his two volumes of autobiography show.  Here, we learn more about his deeply personal love of science.  How excellent that as an 11 year old fan of the periodic table, he was delighted to be able to say “I am Sodium” and remained equally pleased at 79 to say “I am gold”.  His reflections on his different experiences of Jewish family life, in London and beyond, are intriguing.  A book to read, and read over.

Review by Bethan

June 3, 2016

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

by Team Riverside

Hardback, £9.99, Egmont ‘Classics’wind egmont classics

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic The Wind in the Willows was republished last year in a beautiful hardback edition by Egmont ‘Classics’, complete with an appendix of activities for children, a well-conceived glossary (as some of Grahame’s words are challenging) and E. H. Shepherd’s original and unforgettable pen illustrations. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The recommended reading age is 9 – 11 years but a confident reader of seven or eight could be enthralled either reading it themselves or having it read to them and indeed anyone from a five or six year-old to ninety or more could fall in love with this book and remain in love for life.

The unusual and wonderful thing about The Wind in the Willows is that it has references adults will appreciate (to Ulysses for instance, the politics of Grahame’s day, and other literary allusions), some moments of genuine profundity (the haunting chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ is a case in point) – and abundant humour, warmth and excitement that will entertain children as well. Indeed every aspect of this novel is exceptional. The prose is exquisite, the atmosphere palpable, the descriptions of the natural world amongst some of the best in children’s literature and not a page goes by without some gentle humour. The characterisation deserves special notice and is unusually sophisticated for a children’s book; Mole, in particular, is a peculiar, humorous and endearing little creature but all of Grahame’s cast are marvellously realised.

Children’s classics of this period excel in their delicacy, beauty and strangeness. They seem to possess a quality difficult to describe but feels ‘strange’ to our 21st century ears. This quality might also be called ‘magic’. There is an ‘otherness’ to The Wind in the Willows (and several other bygone treasures such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web…) that it is virtually non-existent in modern children’s literature and so enchanting that it is impossible not to feel that Grahame has written something resonant and timeless, and that while we are reading we are doing something very worthwhile.

Review by Emily

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 19, 2016

Citizen – An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Books, £9.99, out nowClaudia Rankine CITIZEN

This book has been out for ages.  It has been in the shop for ages.  It won the Forward Poetry prize for best collection last year.  So why am I writing about it now?

I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it, and because it opened something profound in my head.   Because it added to my intellectual toolkit and challenged the way I think about racism.  Because I have bought it for others.  Because I recommend it all the time but still can’t really find words to adequately describe it, and because it’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.

Rankine writes with honesty and great style about racism, both as experienced in her personal life and in public life.  She tells stories which are both effortlessly relatable and deeply shocking, the more for being truthful – for example, she arrives for an appointment with a new therapist who screams at her to get out of her yard before realising that she is, in fact, a client.  Her work benefits from being heard aloud, as much poetry does.  I heard her perform this piece (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/citizen-vi-train-woman-standing ) and it was like an electric shock ran through the room waking everyone up.  Her pieces about Serena Williams alone are worth buying Citizen for.  The book itself is a beautiful object, with art and photographs scattered throughout.  It’s not a comfortable read, but transformative books rarely are.

Review by Bethan

March 1, 2016

Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out 3 MarchGillian Slovo TEN DAYS

Martin Luther King said that “riots are the language of the unheard”. Developed from Slovo’s successful 2011 verbatim play The Riots at the Tricycle theatre, this readable novel offers multiple voices and a wholly convincing and gripping anatomy of how a London riot happens. It is a scorching summer, and on a fictional South London estate a series of incidents involving the police trigger rioting. We follow the stories of Cathy and her family and friends, who are resident on the estate; Peter, the Home Secretary; and Joshua, the brand new head of the Metropolitan Police. Politics, people and police all collide over ten days, and things may not be what they seem.

Ten Days reads like a thriller, and is more complex and nuanced than you might expect, giving genuine insights into the challenges and motivations of the characters. Slovo deals fearlessly with issues of class, race, poverty and power.  The plot rolls out relentlessly, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens to key characters. Slovo thanks senior police officers, among others, in her acknowledgements and certainly the account of the police experience feels authentic.

It is a properly London novel, and a worthwhile addition to the literature of London disorder and violence. This may be why it has been chosen for London Cityread 2016 (http://www.cityread.london/ten-days/).  I stayed up far too late finishing it and suffered the next day as a result, but it was worth it.

Review by Bethan

January 4, 2016

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £18.99, out nowEdna O'Brien LITTLE RED CHAIRS

In 2012, in memory of the Sarajevo siege which began in 1992, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along… the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs for the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains”. So opens Edna O’Brien’s new novel.

An on the run Serbian alleged war criminal sets up as a New Age healer in a village in Ireland, and one local woman in particular is mesmerised by him. The fallout from this for her and others is dealt with humanely in this often shocking but always thoughtful book. I was reminded of some aspects of the story of Radovan Karadžić, currently awaiting judgement following a five year trial for war crimes in the Hague (http://www.icty.org/x/cases/karadzic/cis/en/cis_karadzic_en.pdf).

Impunity in committing war crimes, and attempts to hold individuals to account for them, are such huge issues that the destruction wrought on individual human lives can be lost. O’Brien manages to capture and convey such human stories in this remarkable novel. Exile of all types and refugee status are also explored: it feels like nothing is too challenging a subject for the author to address. She humanises refugees and exiles, which is more important than ever given the current refugee crisis.

Review by Bethan

September 15, 2015

The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante

by Team Riverside

Out now, £11.99 eachElena Ferrante THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD

A woman in her sixties, at home in Naples, receives a call from the middle-aged son of her best friend. His mother is missing. She has disappeared, cutting her image out of photos and removing all her belongings. Her lifelong friend is not surprised, noting it has been thirty years since her friend – referred to as being an electronics wizard during the 1960s – first told her of her wish to disappear. This beginning of the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.

I decided to read the quartet because we couldn’t keep them in the shop. We’d order, they’d sell out. People had heard about them from friends, or been lent the first book and then been unable to wait to borrow the second, and then the third (The Story of a New Name, followed by Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).

Now I’m about to read the fourth and final book, The Story of the Lost Child. After the opening disappearance, we see the post-war childhood beginning of the difficult and complex friendship between the two women, Elena and Lila, in a poor area of Naples. What difference does an education make to a woman’s life? Marriage? Children? Violence? Money? Family? Wartime shadows? The novels give us a lifetime up close, but so convincingly that I am desperate to find out how all the stories end. And not much else will get done till I’m finished.

Review by Bethan

August 1, 2015

The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury

by Team Riverside

Bloomsbury Circus, out now

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

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

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

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