Friday, April 24, 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.

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)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Marginals, Mad Men and Adam Smith's Dinner - vote for books this General Election

Shortly before opening Mostly Books, another bookseller told us to always remember that “bookselling is a privilege”. Over the years I've spent a lot of time trying to work out exactly why that is.

Of course, books are wonderful, transformative gateways to other worlds and ways of thinking. Reading delivers so many benefits you sometimes wonder why it isn’t available on the NHS (perhaps it is?). But in terms of being a bookseller, I think the ‘privilege’ part comes from being the gatekeeper between customer and the entire book world. We are the people who talk to customers, try – sometimes socratically, often obliquely – to understand what they are looking for, coming up with suggestions that allow them to move beyond the obvious, the best-selling and the hyped.

It’s a great responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great power (I think that’s right?).

Power – and its pursuit – inevitably leads to the General Election, now less than a month away. Mostly Books finds itself in one of the most marginal constituencies in the country (Oxford West and Abingdon) which means campaigning will be fierce, and inevitably there will be a lot of political talk in the shop.

This year, on Tuesday April 14 at 6pm, we'll be chairing the Abingdon Chamber of Commerce Business Hustings at the Abingdon Guildhall (you'll need to email the Chamber if you want to attend).

So if you fancy grilling the candidates - or just informing yourself of the facts ahead of the vote - here is our pick of some of the best new political books. You may be surprised by some of our selections...we've tried to pick books that reflect the candidates standing and the conversations we've already had in the shop.

Last year we had a special selection of books ahead of the Scottish referendum vote, and after Nicola Sturgeon's solid performance in the election debates, let's start with 'The Dream That Shall Never Die' by Alex Salmond. This is the inside story of the IndyRef from Salmond's point of view (although your enjoyment of the book will probably align with your opinion of Salmond himself). Whatever you think about the referendum, or how the vote eventually went, the energy and engagement shown by the Scottish people is something we hope spills across the border into this year's General Election, so it's a fitting book to begin with.

Many people get infuriated with politics at the best of times, so the intensity of campaigning in Abingdon this year may require an escape valve. We recommend John Crace's satirical pop at the status quo in 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election'. Crace - better known for his 'digested reads' in the Guardian - hits the nail on the head of coalition politics by conjuring up some fly-on-the-wall imagined conversations that various politicians might have had. It works brilliantly and hilariously - but may actually soften harsh judgments about how certain parties 'sold out', and the realities and compromises that are inevitable in any coalition...

It's easy to be cynical about modern politics - and the 'they're all as bad as each other' approach is an easy response that let's you off the hook of any responsibility to get involved. The more difficult job of course is to actually bother to think about the issues, do some digging to discover who the good guys are - and give them your support...

In 'Honourable Friends?', Green MP Caroline Lucas explores the results of her own digging during her five years as an MP. This book - a heartfelt and passionate argument about wholesale political reform - rises above narrow party allegiances simply by dint of the high respect Lucas is held in by other MPs, and the wide-ranging experience she has had before her election to Westminster (she was a Green MEP - and she held an Oxfordshire County Council seat in the late 90s).

Lucas was awarded "MP of the Year" in the 'Women in Public Life' Awards in 2011 - but it's the role of women in economic life that is examined in Katrine Marcal's fantastically witty 'Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?'. Arguing that it's women who are the 'missing mass' in failed economic systems (throughout history) this walks a perfect line between angry polemic and incisive argument. As Marcal states in the opening paragraph "Feminism has always been about economics. Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own - and that costs money."

We have a very active Christian community in Abingdon, and in recent years - particularly following the appointment of Justin Welby as archbishop - the church has strongly reengaged with politics. Recent books such as John Sentamu's 'On Rock and Sand' have argued for more Christian values in politics, but we've plumped for Andy Flannagan's 'Those Who Show Up', which encourages those involved in religion to roll up their sleeves and get active - because it is often members of the church, through involvement with food banks and debt counselling, who end up helping the victims of society's failings. The title is a quote from Bart Simpson of all people - giving you a flavour of Flannagan's contemporary, humorous style.

After last year's close IndyRef, the possibility of a British exit from the European Union is a distinct possibility, and 'Brexit' by ex-Labour MP, and former Europe minister Denis MacShane provides a timely look at the UK's relationship with Europe - from Churchill to UKIP. MacShane is probably better known for his expense-fiddling (for which he was jailed in 2013) but this is a sobering look (from someone who 'was there') at the context of our relationship with Europe, the pros and cons of membership, and how Britain really is sleepwalking towards an EU exit.

Most of us are born in it, die in it, and spend considerable amounts of time in it during our lives. It directly employs 720,000 people, and we spend 9.4% of our GDP on it (less than the EU average of 10.2%, interestingly). With an ageing population and an obesity epidemic, it is no wonder few subject stir passions as strongly as the NHS. But what about our own personal relationship with this behemoth? Dr Phil Hammond - author, comedian and doctor - has written 'Staying Alive: How to get the best from the NHS' which not only does what it says on the front, but contains a lot of sensible advice on how to improve the NHS written from someone on the front line. Dr Phil visited Abingdon in 2009 - and he is a passionate, intelligent, trusted and highly entertaining guide to the realities of 21st century healthcare. Highly recommended for both personal and political reasons.

We're going to be subjected to a lot of propaganda via the media and advertising hoardings over the next month, so get the low-down on politicians and their relationship with advertisers and the press with the following two books.

'Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising' by Sam Delaney, starts with the well-known history of Saatchi et al in the 1980s, and tells you what happened next. The anecdotes are at times genuinely shocking and frequently hilarious, with Delaney talking to many of the key players. A brilliantly entertaining (if slightly sinister) history of political advertising.

'Beyond Contempt' by Peter Jukes is (we feel) the best account of the phone hacking trial. To be read with Owen Jones' 'The Establishment', it's a remarkable look at how power operates in this country. Ultimately depressing but thoroughly recommended.

A lot of people feel extremely patriotic during an election, and there really can be nothing more patriotic than recalling the plucky individuals that helped us to defeat the axis powers in World War Two. Zia Chaudhry's 'Just Your Average Muslim' recalls the 400,000 muslims that did just that - and if you are passionate about returning to a time when Britain stood up to the world, this book works hard to dispel some of the more modern, lazy stereotypes of muslims in British society - and encourages us to work harder to reflect on our similarities, not our differences.

No matter who you vote for, the government always seems to get in, eh? Political education needs to start young, so we're going to recommend DK's 'Who's In Charge?'. With a foreward by Andrew Marr, this is the perfect introduction to power and politics for the young. There are big challenges to our continued existence on the planet - it's the youth who are going to be resolving them. Start them young!

P.S. Feeling politically awakened? Want to support something that every major political leader has called for? We recommend voting for books, with the 'Read On. Get On' manifesto for reading.

P.P.S. The bookseller who offered us that 'privilege' advice nearly ten years ago? Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books, still going strong and definitely a bookshop you must visit

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The winner of the UK YA Book Prize is...

This week the winner of the UK's first ever Young Adult (YA) Prize was announced - so we thought it was a good idea to catch up with our newly-established YA Book Group, led by our own Imogen Hargreaves, recently shortlisted for 'Young Bookseller of the Year'...


So at the beginning of February, we started up the YA book group in the shop, with the aim to read a few of the shortlisted books on the YA book prize this year.

The winner was announced last week, so we thought it was a perfect time to talk about the book group and YA books.

So the three books we, as a book group looked at were 'Half Bad' by Sally Green, 'Say Her Name' by James Dawson and 'Ghosts of Heaven' by Marcus Sedgwick.

'Half Bad' was a wonderful book to talk about. There were only the three of us the first week, but we had a long conversation about good and evil, and the way we view them both. What is good, and is anyone actually completely 'good'? If they believe they are doing the right thing, does that make them good? Questions, really, that don't have answers, but we tried to find them anyway. (and we are all not-so-patiently waiting to read Half Wild, published this week).

'Say Her Name' was great fun as well. It creeped us all out enough that we didn't even want a water jug on the table, thinking a hand would suddenly reach out of it towards us. This was also the week we found out we are all Harry Potter fans, so I guess that's a plus as well!

Finally, we read 'Ghosts of Heaven', and I think this was the one we all thought might win. It was a brilliant book, one that had something for each of us. Divided into four parts, this book also divided us; which parts we liked, which part was the most effective, and what on earth the ending meant. Also, we all read it in different orders so each of us had a different view on it.

But none of these were the eventual winner. It was, in fact, a book I had read a week earlier. 'Only Ever Yours' is a book about a terrifying future, where girls are genetically made to be perfect and beautiful; because girls are not people. They are objects. Only Every Yours is a book I would definitely recommend to older teenagers and adults; but probably not one we will not be reading with the younger teens that are members of the book group.

So that's the past three weeks: what about the future?

Well, we still have space if you are interested in coming along and being a part of the group (Does bribery work? If anyone else wants to join, I might start buying biscuits. Because what's better to start a Saturday than books and biscuits?)

On Saturday March 28 we are taking a step away from the Book Prize and looking at a historical novel called 'Black Dove, White Raven', by Elizabeth Wein (the author of Carnegie-shortlisted 'Code Name Verity'), and on the April 18 we are looking at a fantasy book called The Young Elites by Marie Lu.

Why, I hear you cry, should I join this book group? Well, it will get you to read different things, and it might allow you to discover your next favourite author. And you get 15% off any books we read, and cheaper books is always a plus.

Monday, March 09, 2015

See Inside Your Head!

This year's Abingdon-on-Thames Science Festival ATOM! takes place between March 18 - 21. As part of the festival, we're excited to host an inspiring event for all the family at Abingdon's Guildhall entitled 'See Inside Your Head' on Saturday, March 21 at 1.30pm.

Take a tour through your brain! Science writer Alex Frith explains the intricacies of the human brain. From the simple science of synapses to more complex brain functions such as how memories are stored, discover the world of neurological science in this informative, fun and interactive event that makes a complex subject easy for inquisitive minds to understand.

Neuroscientists Chris and Uta Frith, expert consultants on the book, will also be on hand to answer questions about how the brain works, and describe what brain discoveries remain for the next generation to find…

Tickets cost £4 per person, and will be ideal for ages 5-11. Tickets are on sale at Mostly Books, and we expect demand to be strong, so please email us to reserve tickets as soon as you can!

This year ATOM! will coincide with the partial solar eclipse across the UK on Friday 20 March. There will be loads of inspiring science events and it all takes place as part of the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

It’s a great chance to see live demonstrations, hear about cutting-edge research  - and provide inspiration for young and old in one of the country’s science hotspots. Find out more on the official website here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Detectives, Desperados and Dr No: Caroline Lawrence at the Abingdon Joint Author event 2015

Yesterday nearly 600 children from ten Abingdon schools were inspired by tales of Greek heroes, locked-room mysteries and sharp-shooting Wild West cowboys...

The annual Abingdon joint-author event took place at Abingdon School's Amey Theatre with bestselling children's author Caroline Lawrence. The event is a bit of an Abingdon institution, and previous authors have included Alan GibbonsMarcus SedgwickJulia Golding and The Two Steves

Caroline enthralled the audience with tantalising mysteries to solve and how she came to write her own books. She also shared some top screenwriting secrets and powerful tips on how to write compelling stories that work in any medium, from books to films.

Caroline is best-known as a writer of some of our best-loved historical mystery stories. She has a reputation for distilling her passion for art, history, language and travel into cracking mysteries for children. She published her first book, The Thieves of Ostia, in 2001 and there are now seventeen books in the series. It was also filmed as a highly successful children's series for the BBC.
Her latest series, the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, are set in Virginia City, a Nevada town that grew up in the years after the California Gold Rush. Whatever images are conjured up by the phrase 'The Wild West' you would have found them in Virginia City - so when 12 year Old P.K. Pinkerton sets herself up as a Private Investigator she's in one of the most wild, unruly, unholy and downright dangerous places in America...

Caroline explained that she was not allowed to bring her six-shooter (or possibly a seven-shooter) in to show the children (something to do with health and safety) but she did display slides of various artifacts from the period, including something called a spittoon that - if you really want to know more about, you can go visit Caroline's website.
Caroline signed copies of her books afterwards... well as posing for photos of one of her infamous roman artifacts - a sponge on a stick.
Everyone had a chance to guess *exactly* what this might have been used for in Roman times, but we'll give you a clue: it wasn't for brushing your teeth...

Naturally we took the opportunity to find out more about the California-born author who we now happily claim as our own...

Five Questions with...Caroline Lawrence's Writing Life
1.    What are you working on at the moment?
Well, it's very exciting. I'm about to sign a four-book deal for a new series called 'Seekers' set in Roman Britain. It involves five children, and it takes place in 94 AD (towards the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian). The first book is called 'Escape from Rome' and they will be investigating all kinds of mysteries!

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Oh wow, I've got lots of writing tips! But only one? OK - read your work out loud as a form of self-editing. You've got to know how your words sound when read out.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing is the children! I love writing for children, and I'm basically a permanent 11 year old. I love the response you get from children, and when they give you feedback on your books. The worst thing? I really can't think of anything (when I suggest some authors hate the fact that kids read in a day what took a year to write, she exclaims "No, I love that! We need more children reading like that!")

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
Not really, but it's always a challenge to stay off the Internet. I'm training myself to go into a different room or work on a different machine. But I'm not like Shakespeare (in 'Shakespeare in Love') where I have to turn around three times and spit on my hands. The other challenge I have when writing is not to start snacking!

5.   What was your biggest breakthrough?
When I was introduced to a man called John Truby who is a script doctor. He has something called the 22 steps (or beats) to telling a powerful story. Seven of these are absolutely key. and once I knew these, I have been guided by them in all of the books I've written.


Thanks very much to Caroline, and on a personal note - having seen it many times on the Internet - I feel incredible privileged to have been photographed with her and the famous sponge stick!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo - Physicist or Spy?

On the eve of the publication of his new book, 'Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo - Physicist or Spy?', Professor Frank Close will reveal his discoveries about the atomic scientist Bruno Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo was an Italian physicist who worked on the British atomic bomb project at Harwell, and his son, Gil, was about to start his second year at Abingdon School. However, on August 31, 1950, in the middle of a holiday in Italy, he abruptly left Rome for Stockholm with his wife and three sons without informing friends or relatives. The next day he was helped by Soviet agents to enter the Soviet Union from Finland.

World-renowned scientist and writer Frank Close reveals the full story of Pontecorvo, bound up in the murky world of scientific research as the Second World War turned into The Cold War. What nuclear secrets did Pontecorvo take with him? Who was the M15 mole at the School? What role did Kim Philby play?

Close has had unprecedented access to archives, letters, family members and other scientists in telling Pontecorvo’s story. Pontecorvo worked on the Anglo-Canadian arm of the Manhatten Project and was privy to many secrets. He uncovered a way to find the uranium so coveted by nuclear powers.

Close is professor of physics at the University of Oxford and a former head of the theoretical physics division at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. He is author of bestselling books including Lucifer’s Legacy and Antimatter and has twice won the Association of British Science Writers award.

Frank will be speaking at the Amey Theatre, Abingdon School on Wednesday, March 4 at 7pm. Copies of his book will be on sale on the night, which Frank will be delighted to sign. This is a free event, and will be unticketed, but please email us to register your interest and let us and the school know that you will be attending.

(And take a look at this special BBC 'On This Day' news report from 1950)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Dozen Read Books for Valentine's Day

Whilst a dozen red roses might be lovely this Valentine's Day, we're going to give you a dozen read books (see what we did there?) as is now traditional at this time of year.

As I hope you'll expect, our picks for a lovely gift for your Valentine might be slightly on the quirky side, but as ever, come in for a hand-picked recommend for your loved one.

Apparently, we have Geoffrey Chaucer to thank for linking St Valentine to romantic love, so where better place to start than 'My True Love Gave To Me', a series of short (romantic) stories, all with a Winter theme, by authors including stalwart Young Adult writers such as Ally Carter, Holly Black and Rainbow Rowell. A favourite of Imogen's in the shop, this is highly appropriate given that Valentine's Day sees the launch of our YA Bookgroup.

2015 will see the BBC screening a remake of 1970s classic Cornish-set saga 'Poldark' (and we've learned that this Sunday evening the first trailers hit the TV) but until it's shown, the original Poldark novels by Winston Graham (beginning with 'Ross Poldark') have been reissued. They feature some rather spectacular covers, and although we would never suggest anyone is shallow enough to buy them for the covers, they do look rather good...

In terms of beautiful little gift books with a romantic theme, we love 'The Peanuts Guide to Love' (featuring everything from Woodstock falling in love with a worm to Charlie Brown's obsession with the Little Red-Headed Girl). But given that this year it's 150 years since the publication of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' come take a look at the little gem of a book that is the 'Little Folk's Edition', small, red and beautifully gilt-edged collector's edition.

Who knew more about the mysteries of the human heart than Jane Austen herself? In the wry, wise and witty 'The Jane Austen Rules : A Classic Guide to Modern Love' feminist and academic Sinead Murphy answers the question: what's a strong, independent-minded woman supposed to do in a world of insipid dating guides? Who has more time-tested secrets than Jane Austen, whose novels continue to captivate us—read after read—almost two hundred years later?

But for something a bit quirkier, how about the gift of happiness into someone's life? According to the UN, Denmark is the happiest county in the world, so when journalist Helen Russell moved to rural Jutland, she decided to try to discover just why the Danes are so happy. The result is ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ (which has to be our favourite book title of the year) and some of her findings may surprise you. However, Helen is convinced that we can all be a bit happier if we put a little Danish into our lives, and this book – amusingly, thoughtfully – shows you how.

There's been some great new fiction in the shop, and we'll always suggest good new fiction makes the best gift. 'Not Forgetting The Whale' by John Ironmonger is one of the most original, and wonderfully surprising new titles out in February.

When Joe Haak is rescued, naked. from the Cornish beach of St Piran, he is immediately adopted by the curious group of different people that call the fishing village their home. But what they don't know if that Joe fled London, having written a computer program Cassie, that has predicted the end of the world. But is the end of the world about to happen, and can Joe convince the people of St Piran to seal themselves off from the rest of the world? Warm, witty, endlessly surprising, this is already one one of our favourite books of the year.

And we get even quirkier with Stephen May's subversive and brilliantly fun 'Wake Up Happy Every Day'. Ever wondered what would happen if you did suddenly wake up one morning with everything you wanted? This happens to Nicky when his awesomely wealthy mate Russell drops dead, and Nicky takes the opportunity to step into his shoes. A fabulously unique take on the 'be careful what you wish for' story, told with verve, passion, anger...and cake?! Highly recommended...

Of course, a big dollop of cash would be nice, but most of us might have to turn elsewhere for a bit of happiness. We have a range of 'colouring for therapy' books in the shop at the moment, with our pick being 'Color Me Happy : 100 Coloring Templates That Will Make You Smile'. Come in and feel your stress reduce...

Actress Sheila Hancock is already a bestselling author. Her memoir of her late husband John Thaw, The Two of Us, was a number one bestseller. Nicki has loved 'Miss Carter's War', her first work of fiction and a bold storytelling sweep through the last century - through the end of the World Wars, the rise of the Labour Party, the Swinging Sixties, to the AIDS epidemic of the Eighties and the race towards a consumer society. It is all told through the life of Marguerite Carter, one of the first women to receive a degree from Cambridge. who has to be as adaptable to the century as she was brave working for SOE behind enemy lines in France and is a remarkable chronicle of our life and times.

If it's just a bit of pampering you want, look no further than the 'Neal's Yard Beauty Book'. This is a real revolution in home-made cosmetics and beauty products from the legendary Covent Garden-based alternative beauty company - and offers real, luxurious alternatives to the over-priced, chock-full-of-chemicals mainstream beauty industry.

Finally, is there a formula for love? Well, turns out there is and in 'The Formula : How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems ... and Create More" author Luke Dormehl reveals how algorithms are increasingly coming to dominate our lives, and what pleasures - and perils - await us in a world that seems increasingly to anticipate out every move.

The perfect give perhaps for a Don Tillman-out-of-the-Rosie Project character? Come in for more recommends!

Want more recommends? Take a look at our picks for last year and 2013!