January 31, 2017
Hardback, £12.99 – Out Now
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
Paperback, Contraband, £8.99, out now
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
Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out now
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
Hardback, Mantle, £12.99, out now
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
Hardback, Penguin Viking, £12.99, out now
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
Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, out now
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
Hardback, Chatto and Windus, £16.99, out now
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
Hardback, Tinder Press, £18.99, out now – limited number of signed copies available in store
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
Paperback, 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
Hardback, Hutchinson, £16.99, out now
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