Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

November 19, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, out now

 

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

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November 13, 2017

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

November 10, 2017

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

by Team Riverside

heather

Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

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October 20, 2017

Ruth and Martin’s Album Club

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Unbound, £14.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

October 17, 2017

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

October 3, 2017

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 27, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £18.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2017

Transit by Rachel Cusk

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out now

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

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

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

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

Review by Tom

 

 

 

August 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 14, 2017

Calm by Tim Parks

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

May 22, 2017

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

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan                

January 31, 2017

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

by Team Riverside

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

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

Review by Stuart

September 7, 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 29, 2016

Cabin Porn – Inspiration for your Quiet Place Somewhere, by Zach Klein and Stephen Leckart

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out nowKlein and Leckart CABIN PORN

What do you need for your ideal hideaway?  A mountain view and an icy lake?  Dense woodland and a log burning hot tub?  A warm nook for reading, or a breezy beach veranda for birdspotting?  If this is the kind of thing you dream of, this book will make you smile from the beginning to the end.  Stuffed with great photos of boltholes all over the world, the combination of escape and nature plus contentment is irresistible.

The book is a selection of highlights from the blog http://cabinporn.com/, where it is possible to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at beautiful places and sighing wistfully.  This lovely paperback also has short essays with enticing titles such as ‘how to live 30 feet in the air’ and ‘how to make a homestead in the wilderness’.  However, I must confess to not actually having read a single one of these most-likely-excellent pieces, as I have fallen into the pictures and can’t get out.  I don’t think I have ever reviewed and recommended a book in which I’ve not read any of the words!

I prescribe one volume of this topped up with occasional dips into Danish cosiness manual Hygge (which we also have… see https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1112343/the-book-of-hygge/) for maximum comfort and consolation.  Curl up and enjoy.

Review by Bethan

August 20, 2016

Dead Man’s Blues, by Ray Celestin

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Mantle, £12.99, out nowJacket cover

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

August 8, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

by Team Riverside

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

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

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

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

Review by Bethan

July 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

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