Friday, July 03, 2015

Happy Birthday Alice - origins, inspiration and timelessness

One of John Tenniel's
original illustrations
‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is 150 years old in 2015 and to celebrate there will be lots of Alice-themed events happening at Mostly Books over the Summer.

But how did such a timeless classic begin?

It’s a fascinating story and one we thought you might be interested in...

The river outing of maths lecturer, Charles Dodgson, with the Liddell family on 4 July 1862, from Folly Bridge to Godstow, is now famous for the fact that the Alice story was told and Alice Liddell asked for the story to be written down.

It took him more than two years to finish, but it was a success from the moment it was published, with Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde among early fans.

Political cartoonist John Tenniel, was asked to do illustrations (and has been cited by new children’s laureate, Chris Riddell as a huge influence) and not only brought the story to life, but created pictures which have become part of the public consciousness.

You can read the full story on Macmillan's rather wonderful Alice150 website.

Particularly intriguing is the influence of the restrictions of colour printing on the colour of Alice’s dress. For example, did you know that originally Alice’s dress was red – and in one edition, yellow.

The book has never been out of print, but changed in its early years.

Not long after Carroll’s death in 1898, a new edition was planned and as Tenniel’s eyesight was fading. Harry G. Theaker was commissioned to colour sixteen plates of the Tenniel illustrations for a one volume edition of Alice and Through the Looking Glass published in 1911.

The blue that he used for colouring Alice’s dress, together with the white apron and blue striped stockings, established the iconic dress colour that has remained in the Macmillan editions ever since. It was later adopted by Walt Disney for their 1951 film.

After a couple of alternative titles for Carroll’s story were rejected - Alice Among the Fairies and Alice’s Golden Hour - the book was published by Macmillan in 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


There are editions now for all ages, from gift versions to picture book retellings, but our current favourite is the Little Folks Edition. It is a charming miniature edition of Lewis Carroll's classic tale which is specially abridged for younger readers. A sixth of the length of the original 1865 edition, it features 32 brightly coloured illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, uniquely featuring Alice in a red dress and faithfully reproduced from a rare archive copy, this unique little book retains all the charm of the historic original.

Celebrate 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with a pocket-sized piece of history!

Of course, Alice in Wonderland has inspired all kinds of other books and creative works, from Damon Albarn's wonder.land musical to The Matrix.

Some of the themes familiar from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ take on a nightmarish tone in Cathy Cassidy’s ‘The Looking-Glass Girl,’ written in celebration of 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s timeless book and brings many of the themes to a modern audience.

Cathy Cassidy is one of our best-loved authors, cherished for her family stories of friendship and early teen romantic fiction (and we were very pleased to be involved with her at a recent event at Didcot Girls School). So it’s a departure and a move into new territory that ‘The Looking-Glass Girl’ takes on a thriller tone right from the start.

Alice has been increasingly isolated since her best-friends from primary have moved into a much ‘cooler’ set at secondary school. So when she gets invited to a sleepover with them she is not sure whether to be pleased or concerned – a feeling many girls of this age will easily relate to. 
What does the night have in store? Is there some other motivation for inviting her along? What will they being doing and will she be ‘cool’ and grown-up enough?

From when she arrives at the Wonderland-themed party, everything from costumes and the painted faces of the other guests is unsettling. The drink is served in a teapot that Alice suspects is spiked with alcohol, Alice knows she is out of her depth, but desperate to be included.

She has to tread as carefully as her namesake to work out friend from foe, but it all goes horribly wrong.

We know from the opening of the story Alice will end up in a coma, with everyone lying and covering up exactly what went on.

The tension is cranked up from unexpected arrivals at the party and a few games where Alice feels she is less of a guest, more of bait. 

The arrival of a boy Alice likes ratchets up the tension as she can see clearly that one of the other girls likes him too . . .

Taut plotting means the story of what actually happened that night and what is really going on among Alice’s ‘friends’ is revealed only slowly, partly through confessions at her hospital bedside and her nightmarish dreams as she tries to find her way back from unconsciousness to the real world.

Tweens and early teens will love this fresh tale with more than a hint of threat and danger in amongst this tale of friendship and early romance. A total triumph and really true to the original tale, while being really fresh and different.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Independent Bookshop Week 2015 - Laura Barnett, Sally Nicholls, Father's Day and Bookgroups

You know the one about the Texan who goes into the airport, right?

"Give me a ticket!" he demands.
"Where to?" answers the agent.
"Anywhere, I've got business all over!"

Well, that's how we feel during #IBW2015 - so much love around for indies, so many opportunities, authors, events and offers - and all in celebration of the wonderful, the quirky, the unique and diverse world that is independent bookshops.

We've got a whole heap of things going on this week that should give just a glimmer of the amazing range of activities that keeps us viable, relevant and part of our community. But ultimately we couldn't do any of it without your support - so this is also our chance to say THANK YOU for coming to us and entrusting us with choosing those books that will amaze, enthuse and delight.

It's a big responsibility - and we don't take it lightly...


On Saturday, June 20 we have a special Father's Day Storytime taking place - and we'll be unveiling a few surprises as well. Join Nicki and Maddy at 2pm - no need to book, just drop in (and bring little ones!).

We have a rather impressive display of Father's Day book recommendations as part of our 'Buy Dad A Real Book' campaign now in its fifth year. Find out about our dozen choices here.


Who hasn’t wondered ‘What if?’ about their own life? What if you’d taken a particular job, taken that path instead of this one, or that one chance – said ‘yes’ one time instead of ‘no’? The random nature of chance is the subject of Laura Barnett’s ‘The Versions of Us’ – a thought-provoking story about the complexities of human nature and the essentially random nature of life. Laura will be at Mostly Books on Thursday, June 25 at 7.30pm - learn more about this appealing, surprising and fabulously written exploration of fate and destiny here.

(And listen to Laura interviewed on this week's Open Book here)

On Tuesday morning, we have a local school bringing students in to choose prizes - and we'll be on hand to advise and choose the perfect book. This is the first in a series of schools visiting - and is something that creates a fantastic buzz in the shop (in past year, other customers have got themselves involved in some ad hoc recommending!)


Bookgroups are a hugely important part of the bookshop scene, and on Wednesday, the morning bookgroup will be meeting to discuss 'I Let You Go' by Clare Mackintosh. Recent books discussed have included 'All My Puny Sorrows' by Miriam Toews at the Wednesday evening bookgroup (which Nicki describes as 'A small miracle of a book') and 'The Children Act' by Ian McEwan at the Thursday evening bookgroup. Sign up to our newsletter (right hand side of this blog) to find out when spaces become available on any of our groups...

This year, Mostly Books bookseller (and young bookseller of the year shortlistee!) Imogen Hargreaves founded a brand new bookgroup, the YA bookgroup - and on June 27 we are holding a taster session for anyone wanting to come along and discover more about it.

Imogen is keen to make it much more than just a read-and-discuss group - we're choosing the newest and best YA fiction to discuss - but on June 27, we are very excited to be welcoming award-winning author Sally Nicholls, who is coming along to the group to talk about her books, why and how she writes - and what exactly books for teens are.

Sally is the winner of the #IBW2015 Children's Book Award for her latest book 'An Island of Our Own' - so it's doubly fitting that she will be coming along - and as she has offered to even serve behind the till, we are encouraging as many people as possible to come along and meet her!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Father's Day Books 2015: Fleming's Jamaica, Engel's England and the Tsunami Terror's Hollywood...


It's now five years since we launched our 'Buy Dad a Real Book' campaign back in 2011, and this year we're back with our Father's Day XII. All of us in the shop have picked, lobbied, argued and helped put together our list of Father's Day books for 2015.

As always, we've tried to come up with different books - and also a few children's books as we encourage Dads everywhere to start a Family Reading Group at home.


As always, our suggestions are to give you some inspiration and whet your appetite, but we're ready and raring to recommend the perfect book if you are looking for a special gift with extra Dad-appeal. Just pop into the shop.



Nothing says Father's Day like James Bond, and in 'Goldeneye', author (and Bond fanatic) Matthew Parker has written the story of Fleming and his relationship with the island of Jamaica, which infuses almost all of Fleming's books.

Starting with Fleming's arrival on the Island in 1943 (ostensibly to investigate a sinister Nazi establishing a secret U-Boat base in the Caribbean - sound familiar?) it tells the story of the intelligence officer-turned author, the twilight of the British Empire, and the home he built for himself on the island: Goldeneye.



If reading about Fleming's exploits in Jamaica makes you want to rush back to England, then we heartily recommend 'Engel's England'. Humorous writing about England - mixing anecdote, fact and impression - is a tough act to follow after writers as legendary as Bill Bryson, Harry Mount and even Alan Titchmarsh.

Author, newspaper columnist and former Wisden editor Matthew Engel decided to do things properly and spent three years travelling around England's historic counties (and its 41 cathedrals incidentally). They appear in Engel's England in the order in which they were visited. There is a real talent to the writing: you feel that you know each county and with a deceptively easy to read prose, it is a great book for a train journey or to keep by the bed.



In a world of increasing information, the ability to select (or curate) is becoming increasingly more valuable, but if you had to pick the most important ideas and events from the entire 20th century, could you do it?

Inspirational Boston University Professor Jonathan Reynolds has pulled off this feat in the mind-boggling brilliant '30-Second Twentieth Century' (in which 50 of the finest events and ideas are presented in digestible chunks that form a whistlestop tour through the most bloody yet brilliant century in human history. Covering everything from The Theory of Relativity to the devastating consequences caused by the bombing of Hiroshima and the art of Pablo Picasso to the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a fantastic gift for anyone interested in world events.


Author don't come more heavyweight than Antony Beevor - his histories of key moments and battles of the Second World War, including Stalingrad and Berlin - and are some of the most critically-acclaimed history books that we have of any era.

In 'Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble' he examines the Ardennes offensive, which caught the Americans by surprise, and was - at least for a time - as savage and desperate as the battles on the Eastern front. Beevor's background as a soldier gives him an uncanny ability to empathise with soldiers on both sides of the war as he tells the story of the battle that broke the Wehrmacht.



"You know how, because of the Internet, you can't say 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet' because everyone's seen everything by, like, age 12?"

Meet Aldo: philosopher, misanthrope, serial (failed) entrepreneur and unluckiest man alive. Now meet his long-suffering friend (and failed writer) Liam. He decides that writing about Aldo and his breathtakingly disastrous life will be his route to his writing salvation. It's a match made in hell, so what can possibly go wrong?


Very dark, very funny, this book from Booker-shortlistee Steve Toltz examines the flipside of friendship, and explores some very dark corners of life in the 21st century.



There's a lot going on in the world of space at the moment - and if Dad fancies himself as an astronaut then we have two books to recommend to him. Usborne's Astronaut Handbook should tell him everything he needs to know about life in space, and Neal Stephenson's 'Seveneves' is epic science fiction at its most world-ending best, as humanity scramble to turn the ISS into a lifeboat to escape a dying Earth. That should get any work-related worries into perspective. Go see our blog post from a few weeks ago to get your space reading fix.

(And if there is anyone out there who we haven't yet recommended 'The Martian' by Andy Weir to - read it before the film comes out this Autumn!) 



We've two excellent children's books to recommend as well - each with a novel twist on the 'my dad is a hero' theme. The first is 'Superhero Dad' by Timothy Knapman and Joe Berger. It's is all about the way a son sees his father. No matter what it is, from telling a joke to scaring the monsters under his bad, the father is a superhero. But what about what the child is in the fathers eyes? A great fun, heartwarming books for Dads to share with their children (to remind them how all Dads are heroes!)


For Jake Biggs, his Dad George is a genuine superhero - well, of the wrestling type anyway. George Biggs demolishes buildings by day, but by night he dons his spandex (and knee supports) and becomes...'Demolition Dad', the master of disaster. But when Jake enters his Dad secretly into a competition to take on the 'Tsunami Terror' in Hollywood, disaster might really be the outcome. Author Phil Earle is one of our most talented storytellers, and Phil has channelled the memory of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki in reliving the glory days of British wrestling. This is top fun for bedtime reading.


'Mr Holmes' by Mitch Cullin (originally published as 'A Slight Trick of the Mind') imagines Holmes, in extreme old age, as witness to the birth of our own era.

Three stories, intertwined: Holmes begins to develop a close relationship with a young man who assists him with his bees, his memories of a visit to postwar Japan, including Hiroshima and the elaborate lie he told to a man who thinks the detective may know the truth about his missing father. To be released as a film next week starring Ian McKellen.



If it's a twisty, turny whodunit that Dad is after, we recommend 'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair' by Joël Dicker, which features a young novelist as the main protagonist.

When acclaimed writer Marcus Goldman’s old friend and mentor is arrested for murder, Goldman is the only one who believes in his innocence. Can he clear his friend's name, save his reputation in the small town where he has lived - and possibly write his greatest ever book? This is a book that truly gets under your skin, and we defy anyone to guess the ending...


Is Dad normal? Difficult questions to ask perhaps, but in 'How to be Normal' writer Guy Browning (author of 'Never Hit A Jellyfish with a Spade') provides a comprehensive guide to the perplexed.

Packed full of impractical advice, from how to spectate at sports events, to the correct etiquette for pushing a supermarket trolley around a supermarket, a book definitely not to be read in public places, particularly if you are not normal in any way.



And finally - we definitely had to find a cycling book to place on our recommendations. In 'The Monuments' by Peter Cossins is an epic look at those cycling events that endure, that bring out the most heroic efforts from the greatest cyclists in history.

These events are known in the cycling community as 'The Monuments' and include the spine-shattering Paris-Roubaix and the aristocractic Tour of Lombardy. Packed full of facts, anecdotes and stories this is a book to inspire - even on the commute to work.


We appreciate not everyone has a Dad to buy for, and sometimes this is for sad reasons. So we'll just pass on a suggestion made by a customer last year (who we won't name) but who always reads a favourite book that her father used to enjoy. We think that's a lovely idea...

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Versions of Us: An Evening with Laura Barnett

One of the hottest debut novelists of the year, Laura Barnett, will be coming to Mostly Books on Thurs June 25, when she will be talking about her hugely anticipated debut novel that poses the question ‘what if?’ in a truly original way.

Laura Barnett’s ‘The Versions of Us’ presents us with three people, and three different scenarios. Creative yet sensible Eva either meets troubled, artistic Jim – or doesn’t. Or possibly they meet, but Eva is already involved with rising actor, David.

Three scenarios. Three strands. Three versions of life. Each version plays out, keeping everyone guessing as to which will leave our protagonists leading happy and fulfilled lives. Or will any of them?

It's anything but a straightforward study of relationships as the book follows Eva, Jim and David from their first meeting at Cambridge, throughout their lives, forever in a dance whether they are aware of each other or not.

The subtlety of how the characters change, yet remain true, is one of the many skills of the author. No matter which of their alternative lives they are living, it’s a playful book, but also a thought-provoking one.


It’s been compared with David Nicholls’ ‘One Day,’ asking questions such as: How much does marrying the right person first time around affect everything else in our lives? And if a quirk of fate means we miss that chance – if the connection is strong enough, will we get that chance again?

Tickets are £5, to include wine, and redeemable against a purchase of the book on the night. Come along and meet Laura – and learn more about the authors and 'The Versions of Us' here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

3-4-Friday Out Of This Word: Exploding Moons, Astronaut handbooks and post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

(c) Daniel Bursch / NASA
"The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program" - Larry Niven

Abingdon sits at the heart of a lot of science - and increasingly that includes Space Exploration. Whether it's next generation spaceplanes at Culham, space test facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Labs or the new European Centre for Space Applications at Harwell, it seems like dozens of new space organisations and companies are springing up all over the place.

So no apologies if today’s 3-4-Friday has a slightly out-of-this-word, sorry, world feel to it.


This November, astronaut Tim Peake will be the first British astronaut to be launched into space on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and he’s written the forward for Louie Stowell's ‘The Usborne Official Astronaut's Handbook’. It's a funny and fascinating how-to guide for budding astronauts, and Usborne says it provides a 'crash course' on what it takes to travel into space (but hopefully not that sort of crash).

Given that it costs about £300 million per ISS mission, we reckon £6.99 is a highly cost-effective way of learning how to train for, get to and live in space for kids – without actually going there.


Of course, if we don’t learn how to live in space, we’re sitting ducks for any rogue asteroid, nearby supernova explosion – or just wandering exo-planet that might stray too close. And that is the starting point for Neal Stephenson’s epic new science fiction novel ‘Seveneves’, published yesterday. 

When something (or someone) blows up the Moon, humans are forced to evacuate the Earth – and we follow the survivors over the next several hundred years as they evolve in space. As with all Stephenson’s novels, the science is merciless, the scale is epic, and you have to be up for the ride. But the result is a blistering, catch-your-breath, against-the-odds tale that might just serve as an emergency handbook in case we ever have to leave Earth in a hurry.

And if you’ve ever wondered what a post-apocalyptic life on Earth might actually be like, then ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel won this year’s Arthur C Clarke award for the best science fiction novel of the year (it was also longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for women’s fiction).

It’s the elegiac story of Kirsten, who, part of a touring theatre group, performs Shakespeare to settlements that have grown up in the aftermath of society’s collapse. Haunting, yet strangely reassuring, it reminds us of what we can be thankful about in the absence of flu epidemics (or any other world-ending scenario).

For whilst we may strive to go off into space, we can't ignore what we have to protect here on Earth. If only there were a way of linking the two?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Could you write the next chapter for Mostly Books?

It is with excited anticipation, mixed obviously with sadness, that we would like to announce that Mostly Books is looking for a new owner.

In the last year we’ve hosted our biggest-ever event with David Mitchell, we’ve been recognised as one of the top three bookshops in the south-east of England by the Bookseller Industry Awards, and we’ve implemented our biggest ever initiative to support literacy in schools.

All of this has been achieved while never losing sight of that fact that we are first and foremost a community bookshop – serving both our local customers and visitors to the town with experienced bookseller knowledge, our hugely popular next-day ordering service, as well as providing a community notice-board and box office for events in the town.

As next year we will go into our tenth year we have started to think ‘what next for Mostly Books?’

No business can ever afford to stand still – and in the rapidly changing world of High Street bookselling, we reckon there needs to be a constant stream of new ideas. We feel that a new owner of the bookshop would come in with a host of new ideas – just as we did nearly ten years ago.

We feel that the best way we can ensure Mostly Books moves forwards, evolving and offering those robust services that people have come to expect is to find someone who will bring in fresh ideas, new creativity and an ability to ensure Mostly Books is still here, serving its community, another ten years from now.

The shop is now officially for sale.

We could not do what we do - nor have achieved the success that we have – without truly incredible support. We hope everyone will continue to support us through the transition and offer the same enthusiastic welcome we have received in our ten-year tenure, to the new owners.

We very much look forward to ushering in this new chapter and feel it is the way to ensure that the future will continue to bring excitement and enthusiasm, and continue to grow what is a very special cultural hub for books in Abingdon.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

John Henry Brookes: The man who inspired a university

On Wednesday, May 20 at 7.30pm we will be celebrating the life of John Henry Brookes, educationalist and founder of Oxford Brookes University, with Abingdon-based designer and author Bryan Brown, to coincide with the launch of his ground-breaking biography ‘John Henry Brookes: The man who inspired a university’.

When John Henry Brookes (JHB) became head teacher at the Oxford School of Art in 1928, there were just two members of staff teaching 90 students. By the time he retired in 1956, the institution had grown significantly and was by then called the Oxford College of Technology. He had set the foundations and ideas enabling it to grow into the internationally recognised university of today. 


During his 28 year career, Brookes, believing that education should be available to all, also helped to create two other schools; Oxford Spires Academy and Cheney School, as well as the Oxford College of Further Education, now known as the City of Oxford College.

"A goal of all formal education should be to graduate students to lead lives of consequence" - JH Brookes

This was a truly remarkable achievement during one of the most challenging periods in British history, including the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s, World War 2 and its deprived aftermath.


With photography dating back from the early years of the 20th century, and beautiful colour reproductions of artwork produced by Brookes, the biography will provide a compelling insight into the life of a man who was determined to change education for young people in Oxford. 

As well as an insight into one of the most influential educational leaders of the 20th century, the book explores how the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement influenced the development of education in Oxford. 

Bryan Brown is closely associated with John Henry Brookes. He was born in Oxford, attended Cheney School (founded by Brookes), and similarly trained as a designer. In 1992 when Oxford Polytechnic became a university, he recommended the name and developed the brand identity for Oxford Brookes University.

In 2005, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the University and in recent years has led a campaign to reassert John Henry Brookes’ fading legacy. 


The event takes place at Mostly Books on Wednesday, May 20 at 7.30pm. Bryan will be discussing the man, his legacy and how what he did and achieved hold lessons for today's educationalists.

Tickets are £4, including a glass of wine, and redeemable against a purchase of the book on the night, which will be on offer at a special price.

We hope you can join us. Email us to reserve a place.

(Keen to learn more about JHB? Visit his page on the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques website)