Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Gruffalo visits Mostly Books

To celebrate our being awarded "Julia Donaldson's Children's Independent Bookshop of the Month" for August, we received a visit from The Gruffalo. When you run an independent bookshop, it doesn't get much better than this...
Once we knew The Gruffalo was coming, we thought we'd best invite some people to celebrate with us. So over two sessions in the afternoon, approximately 50 children joined us in the courtyard garden.

There was a special reading of 'The Gruffalo'...take a look at what happened when someone made his entrance at a certain point in the story...


(Notice we did our best to reduce the overall scariness of the situation, but a few of the children were, quite frankly, terrified)

There was quite a lot of posing for photographs...

And Imogen had baked some rather splendid Gruffalo cake, which also helped relax everyone into the mood of the thing...

After the cake was eaten, and goodie bags passed around, The Gruffalo had a VIP tour of Mostly Books:


Huge thanks to everyone who came and made the day so memorable - and apologies to those that wanted to come, but we were too full. There is still time to enter 'Mouse's Gruffalo Pie' competition - and The Gruffalo's Child seems to have taken up residence at the back of the shop...


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

After I Launched You: Alison Mercer and the launch of 'After I Left You' at Mostly Books

Second chances - and facing up to the past so you live in the present - are two of the big themes in Alison Mercer's second novel 'After I Left You'.

Alison was at Mostly Books on Thursday to celebrate its launch. Friends, family, fans and colleagues listened as she explained the genesis of the book, how it been in her mind as an idea for years.

But the story of Anna and how she comes to terms with bruising realities in her past, was the one her editor most wanted to see after a meeting to discuss publication of Alison's first novel 'Stop the Clock', in what Alison described as being 'like the most scary job interview ever'.

Alison thanked her husband, Ian, for his support in giving her time to write, to her supportive team at Transworld and also the support of her work colleagues and other writing friends. There were at least two extremely well-known authors in the audience, as well as editors, agents, bloggers - including the Abingdon Blogger.

She read from the opening scene, one in which Anna bumps into an old flame. Her attire, the bridesmaid dress in her hands, makes this excruciating, a bad-dream sequence that she would never have wanted to happen.

In a similar way to 'Stop the Clock' the action catches up with university friends after time has passed and analyses how their lives have fared - who made good on early promise, whose marriages are on the rocks, who is no longer even around. The Oxford setting ensures plenty of local appeal, but the themes - and the writing - ensure that appeal is universal. But the style has a definite darker side - and a creeping sense of unease builds imperceptibly as past history slowly bubbles to the surface.
'After I Left You' features a compelling mix of characters, back stories seamlessly woven in and will appeal to anyone who ever attended a reunion and couldn't help but measure up against all their old protagonists.

For Anna, life started off well, heading to Oxford from an ordinary background and falling in with a glittering group of privileged friends. Bumping into old-flame, Victor, seventeen years after she last saw him is painful enough. But Anna must brave seeing all her old group again as she tries to lay to rest the time she has not ever really moved on from - the time when she realised her friends were not all they had seemed...

Once again the weather played ball allowing us to hold another magical evening in the garden. Following the launch of her debut in 2012, we were honoured to host the launch of 'After I Left You', to welcome so many great supporters of Alison to the shop - and a huge thank you to Transworld for supporting their author and the event so strongly.

(Find out much more about Alison and her writing here)

Alison is - as the publishing world demands - already writing her next book. So we are definitely looking forward to another launch event. As Dorothy Parker said "I hate writing, but I love having written". And we love having launched a new book!

Thursday, August 07, 2014

How does it feel? Bethan Roberts discusses 'Mother Island'

The realities of motherhood and the sometimes difficult relationship of employing a nanny, together with fond memories of family holidays on Anglesey were the inspirations behind Bethan Roberts’ new book ‘Mother Island’, which she was at Mostly Books to talk about on Thursday.


Her first novel set in the present day, Mother Island is the story of two women – and one child. New mother, the assured and aloof Nula, thinks the perfect person to take care of her new-born is her cousin, Maggie, an Oxford drop-out, and a bundle of emotion just waiting for someone to love, who has drifted into childcare, and who thinks she knows what is best for Nula’s child.

The pair clash over parenting styles alongside the evolving backstory of how they first met in one summer full of family feuds and raging disappointments. Early on we know Maggie plans to take the child and what follows is a shifting tide of emotion that allows the reader to see both sides of this tug-of-love story as two woman's history bubbles long-buried resentments to the surface.


The distinctive cover gives an idea of the pattern of the story – the switching between the two voices – and a constant shift in where the reader’s sympathies lie between the two women.

Bethan - born and raised in Abingdon - started her published life at independent Serpent's Tail, a small but hugely respected publisher of edgy fiction and book in translation (who also have an enviable reputation for spotting new, young authors). After book 'The Pools' and 'A Good Plain Cook', she moved to Chatto & Windus. She talked a little about the difference in approach from two publishers that she has enjoyed working with.

Describing how she aims to improve with each novel, she particularly values the editing process at Chatto that goes into her novels, describing how the manuscript goes back and forth over several months as changes are made. 

‘I was really surprised when I saw the jacket as it looks like a thriller, although it isn't. I like writing about domestic situations and not in a fluffy way, but I am conscious of having a narrative that pulls people through. The reader deserves a cracking story.’

Bethan’s previous novel ‘My Policeman’ is a well-constructed tug-of-love story of a different kind – the fight between the wife and the lover of a gay man set in 1950s Brighton, which has earned her many plaudits, particularly for her skill in getting under the skin of what it was like to be gay at that time.

The idea of writing about early motherhood, she said, came from her own experiences and in looking to literature when she was pregnant to find out what it might be like to experience motherhood – and finding there were very few novels that had much to say on the subject (she has recently wrote an article on the subject for The Guardian).

‘Mother Island’ is Bethan's fourth novel, and you can read a few reviews here and our own review of it here.

Despite a weather scare (!) we were able to sit out on a lovely Summer evening in the garden. Thanks to Bethan for coming up from Brighton (you never really leave Abingdon of course) and thanks to everyone who came along to listen on what was another delightful event - one that kicked off our 'Vintage Summer' celebration througout August. If you were unable to make it along, we have signed copies of 'Mother Island' now in the shop.

(Brilliant blogger Gaskella has done a rather fabulous write-up of the event here - and she'll be reviewing 'Mother Island' as part of the next edition of Shiny New Books...)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

'After I Left You' with Alison Mercer

On Thursday, August 7 at 7.30pm we are delighted to be hosting the launch event for Alison Mercer's novel 'After I Left You'. It's another absorbing and powerful novel of love, friendship and secrets, and follows the publication of her critically acclaimed debut 'Stop The Clock' in 2012.

'After I Left You' follows Anna, who has not been back to Oxford since her last summer at university, seventeen years ago. She tries not to think about her time there, or the tightly knit group of friends she once thought would be hers forever. She has almost forgotten the fierce sting of betrayal, and the secret she carries around with her, the last night she spent with them all. A chance meeting on a rainy day in London means Anna is forced to remember the events of that summer and the people she left behind...

Alison Mercer lives locally, with her husband and two children. She studied English at University College, Oxford, and did a diploma in journalism at Cardiff University. 'Stop The Clock' was published in 2012.

The launch takes place at 7.30pm at Mostly Books on Thursday, August 7. Although a free event, hosted by Mostly Books and her publisher Black Swan, you do need to let us know you are coming. Email us if you would like to reserve a place.

Monday, August 04, 2014

To know the causes of things: the BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub with Morpurgo, Mitchell and Diamond

Today's BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub had some heavy subject matter - bravery and cowardice in the first world war, century-long conflicts between good and evil, and the - often counter-intuitive and surprising - causes of how the world got into its current state.

Susie Dent was sitting in for Kat Orman, and you can listen to the show by fast-forwarding to 1 hour and 7 minutes here.

The first book we talked about was Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful’. Aside from a compelling and moving read in its own right, Morpurgo's real genius is to have written a children's book that has plenty to offer adults. Morpurgo is a master storyteller - and the book was a fitting one to talk about on the centenary of the start of the first world war.

The story is about a soldier called Thomas "Tommo" Peaceful, who is looking back on his life from the trenches of World War I in Belgium. We start with his upbringing, how he looks out for his older brother, ‘Big Joe’, who has learning difficulties, and his relationship with his brother Charlie, and their shared love for a girl, Molly.

Structurally, each chapter of the book brings the reader closer to the present until the story turns to present tense. Private Peaceful epitomizes the devastatingly unfair treatment soldiers were given and the unjust ending many brave soldiers had to face. It is also a story about the friendship between the two brothers and the undying bond of trust between soldiers in the trenches.

This Summer, Private Peaceful is an ‘Abingdon Big Read’ – through an initiative with Our Lady’s Abingdon, and the town’s bookshops, everyone is being encouraging to read ‘Private Peaceful’ and then tweet or give their feedback to us or the school about their experience. On September 24, there will be a special showing of the 2012 film of Private Peaceful, and a talk by its producer at OLA.

Although not yet published, David Mitchell's 'The Bone Clocks' has made it onto the Book Longlist - and we were lucky enough to blag a proof copy ahead of publication. It is utterly remarkable, easily one of our books of the year.

It starts in 1984, and follows a fifteen year old girl, Holly Sykes, running away from home after a relationship goes wrong and she can’t bear to face her parents. We learn that Holly used to have voices in her head (who she dubbed ‘The Radio People’) and was visited by a Miss Constantin, who sat on her bed and seemed to be able to influence events in Holly’s life. Her mother takes her to a ‘Dr Marinus’ who seems to cure Holly of her voices, and though she still has the occasional terrifying ‘Daymare’ all seems to return to normal. That is until her younger brother disappears, and Holly is thrust into a new nightmare. What follows is an accelerating, and increasingly complex story, that advances in leaps and bounds to the present – and then far into the future. Holly’s life unfolds, and a dark conspiracy emerges: a battle between good and evil that has been going on long before Holly was even born...

This is bold and brilliant storytelling that takes huge risks, bringing in characters and themes from Mitchell’s earlier books, and one that has plenty to say about everything from the war on terror to the state of modern novel writing. But at its heart is a good old-fashioned story to lose yourself in – breathtaking and a book we will be placing forcefully into the hands of our customers come September...

Finally, we’re celebrating a Vintage Summer at Mostly Books, so selfishly picked a favourite Vintage Classic: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. This is one of those tour-de-force, history of everything books – but in this instance Jared really does go back to the basics to show how the world evolved and came to be the complex place we see today.

Diamond takes a socractic rerum cognoscere causas ('to know the causes of things') approach, starting with a simple question: why did Spanish conquistadors arrive in South America, and not the other way around? It turns out that there are compelling – and simple – reasons as to why farming emerged in the Middle East (and never in Australia) and why the Incas or Chinese did not build empires like the Europeans. You’ll understand why Diamond won a Pullitzer when this was originally published in 1997.

(You can listen to the whole show here - fast forward to 1 hour and 7 minutes.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Vintage Summer: Mother Island with Bethan Roberts

It's going to be a Vintage Summer. And no, we aren't just talking about the weather...

For the whole of August, we will be celebrating Vintage Books, with competitions, activities and discovering the mixture of classic and contemporary writing that are the hallmark of one of our most successful publishing imprints.

And on Thursday, July 31 at 7.30pm - to launch the whole month - we will be welcoming Vintage author Bethan Roberts to talk about her new book 'Mother Island'.

Bethan grew up in Abingdon. Her first novel 'The Pools' won a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers’ Award. Her second novel 'The Good Plain Cook' was serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and was chosen as one of Time Out’s books of the year. She also writes short stories (receiving the Olive Cook short story prize from the Society of Authors in 2006) and has had a play broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Her third novel 'My Policeman' - inspired partly by the private life of EM Forster - was the 'Brighton City Reads' choice for 2012, and one of our favourite books from that year.


'Mother Island' has two storylines and two voices - but one child. Controlling, career-minded new mother Nula employs her contrasting cousin, Maggie, to look after her baby. When their childcare approaches clash too much, Maggie decides to take the child. But has she misread how much Nula will care? A dissection of motherhood and how the lasting subliminal effects of your own parents can have on your approach to your own children.

Read more about the book here and its review in The Independent here.

Tickets for the event are £3 and include a glass of wine. And if we're really lucky, and it turns out to be a real vintage Summer, the event will be in the Mostly Books garden...email us if we can reserve you a space.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

For the love of bookshops: Mark Forsyth, IBW2014 and The Future of the Book

What could be more lovely?

A sultry summer evening, a glass of Pimms, a crowd of book enthusiasts and a bestselling author gathered in the courtyard garden at Mostly Books.


It felt slightly surreal then to find ourselves discussing the very future of books and bookshops.

But why the need for a debate?

Surely independent bookshops are much-loved and have a secure future? Is there a real threat? Are people seriously suggesting that independent bookshops will be squeezed into extinction?


The gathering was to mark Independent Booksellers Week – an industry initiative given wholehearted industry support from publishers to authors, the media and readers – which specifically sets out to remind people of the value an independent bookshop can bring to their community. 

It urges people to re-engage with their local bookshop and to rediscover that bookshops really do add ‘something else’ to their communities, to reading and to shopping for books.

A traditional part of the week has been the writing of an essay, published as a small pamphlet, that invites people to celebrate independent bookshops. 

This year’s is entitled 'The Unknown Unknown' and was penned by Mark Forsyth, who writes delightful quirky books, including ‘The Etymologicon’, based on his passion for words. Mark was on a big IBW tour of bookshops, and was fresh from a previous evening's visit to Foyles, taking part in 'The Great Bookshop Debate'.

He was invited to Mostly Books to discuss whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of the independent bookshop – or if it is a sector creative and robust enough to continue to find ways to have a healthy future.

The Unknown Unknown’ celebrates the joy of finding a bookshop, of being in a bookshop with the time to browse, and to discover a book you would never otherwise have even known you wanted to read.

‘Discoverability’ as it is known in the book trade.

Debating with Mark Forsyth for the evening was Mark Thornton of Mostly Books, who started off playing devil’s advocate, asking when bookshops are so clearly well-loved and so well supported – is there even a need to have a special week to remind people to celebrate them? Or is it - as one of customers wryly remarked last week via a Tom Lehrer reference - merely a week to patch over problems that loom all too large for the other 51 weeks of the year?

Do people really need reminding to go out and do something as pleasurable as reconnecting with a real bookshop and discovering an Unknown Unknown within?

A show of hands revealing that nearly half of the audience like to read on electronic devices (though not exclusively) was a clear demonstration of a trend that didn’t even exist a few years ago that bookshops now have to compete with.

How to stay relevant in this digital age, and to stay profitable and in business in the face of the rapid decline in sales of print books, has very quickly gone to the front of this debate.

Mark Forsyth explained how, as an author, he is aware how the Kindle is changing the nature of discoverability. Anecdotally from his publisher he is aware that, when new, popular and bestselling books are offered as an eBook ‘deal of the day’ for 99 pence, there are plenty of purchases not just of the eBook, but of the print book too.

To offer a book for such a cheap price is a persuasive way of getting people to try a book you didn’t even know you wanted and to some extent simulates the serendipity of browsing, but without the need to switch off the computer and go out into the world. To judge by our own conversations with Kindle users, this is an increasingly popular way of discovering new books. In fact, many Kindle try never to pay full price, and instead wait until books are on offer.

Discoverability, and the ability of independent bookshops to provide this, has seen much news coverage this week, with several authors adding their voices to the thought that they would never be around today if their sales had been purely down to whether they generate buzz on the internet. 


If you can’t explain the concept in 140 characters and tweet it today, authors are finding it increasingly difficult to get anyone to buy and read their books – particularly new authors.

Jonny Geller, the literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown, said in the Daily Telegraph: ‘There's a whole mid-range of novels that don't have a hook or spectacular angle that would have been published five years ago, but fewer publishers want to take the risk. When the Borders and the Ottakars [bookshops] started closing, the market for more experimental novels and novelists with no track record got smaller.’

E-readers have meant that for a short time there has been a boom in book sales; the total book market grew for the first time in twenty years last year as the surge in eBook sales more than made up for the drop in print sales.

EBooks are now 48 per cent of total fiction sales (they were seven per cent in 2012, with sales up by 366 per cent last year) and in 2014 they are predicted to overtake sales of fiction paperbacks. 

And as at least 90 per cent of eBooks sold are on the Kindle, which can only be bought on Amazon, this is less than brilliant news for independent booksellers. 

Figures show that the UK eBook market is set to triple over the next four years and will by then have overtaken the paperback and hardback as the preferred option for reading novels, as sales of print editions as expected to fall by more than a third in that time.
Why are eBooks so popular was something else up for discussion.


"Now, where did I put my
copy of 'The Etymologicon?"
One aspect of its appeal that we debated was that digital devices help overcome the problem of all the physical space you need to have a really good library. 

Having too many books can be a problem with deciding to allow yourself something new to read. And people have difficulties in knowing what to do with all the books that they have – even those they don’t think they will read again. 

Everyone agreed that books are difficult things to give away.

(Except Mark Forsyth – who caused ripples of consternation when he mentioned he had recently been on a long trip around Europe, and found a fascinating delight in disposing of the books as he read them – putting them in bins or recycling containers, or throwing them out of the train window.)

Perhaps we need to encourage people to sacrifice all the old books taking up room and make space for an Unknown Unknown?

However, Mark said he couldn’t possibly do without his library at home, but agreed that people are buying fewer books, and now being far more selective, tending towards buying print copies only of titles they wish to keep on their shelves, being happy to have the rest as eBooks, taking fewer risks with physical books.

The questions of storage, or possessing a physical book, was further explored following a question about the reading habits of teens. It was pointed out that, given the audience sitting in the Mostly Books garden, you could accuse an event with an author and bookseller as simply 'preaching to the converted'. Today's kids are growing up 'digital natives', and whilst an older generation might wax lyrical about 'the smell of books', etc. the next generation may not have that affinity to physical books - and instead may be more interested in social aspects of reading online - sharing favourite authors, snapchatting shots of reading the current 'must-read', reading from Wattpad, and even writing fan fiction.

The question was perhaps left unanswered, although Mark Thornton explained that at a number of recent events at secondary schools a common phrase heard was 'I've got it on my Kindle'. This seems like the perfect 'talk to the hand' teenage response to quickly shut down any discussion about whether they might want to engage with the book at all - particularly in front of peers where it might not be cool. Whether the book was already on their Kindle - and more importantly, whether it had been read - goes to the heart of possibly a new kind of consumerist experience, that of having 'experienced' the book socially without actually having read it. As social buzz about books explodes, and 'fear of missing out' is almost classified as a psychological condition, the form of response is perhaps understandable. You can only read so many books.


Forces combined: Mostly Books and Abingdon Library
jointly welcomed Rachel Joyce and  'The Unlikely
Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' in 2012
There were other questions from the audience: in an age of austerity, surely more people should be using libraries, so did bookshops see libraries as competitors? Both Marks categorically agreed 'no'. Independent bookshops and libraries were natural partners, and research has shown that more library users in a community means more book buyers, because of an overall rise in the level of a love of books. It is interesting to note that libraries are facing their own existential threat - albeit for very different reasons.

So, if Independent Booksellers Week is all about visiting a physical bookshop, what can bookshops do to make people want to head to their local high street to visit them? How can we get more people to want to discover their next Unknown Unknown on the high street?

Mark Forsyth definitely felt that curating the stock choice, with fewer bestsellers, fewer celebrity biographies – and less room for coffee and more room for books, were definitely on his wishlist for the bookshop of the future.

Mark Thornton agreed that bookshops needed to keep at the very top of their game in terms of events and curation, services and community. But he also agreed with one audience member who said that, ideally, readers would have the best of both worlds: eBooks and physical, High Street and the Internet. But the economics of being on the High Street does represent a real and present 'Reality Gap' that may not be overcome.

Whatever we feel about independent bookshops, the figures tell their own story.
In the past 10 years, the number of independent booksellers in Britain has halved. More than 500 independent outlets have shut since 2005. Last year 67 local bookshops closed, leaving 987 still trading – the first time it has fallen below 1000.

The story is not the same all over the world. In France booksellers cannot discount French-language books by more than 5 per cent below the list price and there are grants and loans available to those looking to start up bookstores. France has 2,500 bookstores, with e-books counting for just 1.8 per cent of the market.

As the number of bookshop closures mean the distance between independents grows ever larger, some bookshops have turned themselves into multi-purpose outlets (from cafes to chocolate concessions, ice-cream parlours to creches), or even community bookshops run by volunteers, just to survive and to find a way to keep physical bookselling alive when the economics say otherwise.

The book world continues to evolve at a bewildering pace. Last week author James Patterson announced that he is offering a grant available to keep bookshops going. This has caused a perhaps surprising number of our customers to enquire whether things are really that bad for bookshops. Will it be only through the support of grants that they can continue to provide much loved services, as bookshops are no longer terribly robust businesses? Are we saying the French model is not only desirable, but essential?

Are indie bookshops like elephants: we all love them, we'd hate them to disappear from the wild, but commercial realities are causing more of them to disappear and in the end - and, you know, the world won't end if they do.

Looking at the figures it is hard not to conclude that in a very few short years the preferred way of the personal reading of fiction is very fast becoming digital - and the preferred way of discovering new reads and authors is online. 

Is it because there are fewer and fewer bookshops around, or is it more to do with the fact that as we lead busier and busier lives, something like browsing in a bookshop is a luxury we no longer find the time for? Or are we genuinely falling out of love with print books, except as gifts? And are we falling out of love with bookshops?

If browsing is a dying art, then here is a recent experience that may offer a way forward.
A few weeks ago, a local English teacher brought in a dozen of her pupils (boys aged 14-15) to buy something challenging and different for their Summer reading, outside the usual YA genre. The experience was nothing short of amazing. We were challenged to select and display a range of new books and authors, we spoke to them about the skill in selecting a book in a bookshop:'How to Browse 101'. Sullen faces and closed body-language evaporated as a genuine excitement about choosing books was turbo-charged with one-on-one conversations - and even customers joined in. It was one of those pieces of magic in a bookshop that we would love to replicate with other schools next year.

In one hour, all the strengths of a bookshop - community, education, physicality, passion, enthusiasm, expertise, curation - came together to produce a moment of real and lasting value. This is, in our opinion, what IBW is attempting to do, a great way of giving people an opportunity to try to find some time to think about bookselling on the high street - and to find an unexpected new book to read.

As IBW draws to a close for another year it is always worth reminding people that bookselling is a joy and a privilege – helping people discover new books and authors from our side of the counter is something we love to do. Providing a community hub for people to meet and engage with books feels like something worthwhile.

We're fortunate at Mostly Books to have an amazing, and diverse, range of hugely supportive customers. They are as likely to be in the shop, discovering new titles, when the snow is piled high in January as when queues form out of the door on the last Saturday before Christmas. We also have seasonal visitors who - often with no independent near them - take the opportunity to visit, share and discover new books whilst travelling, or visiting family and friends.

We really hope High Street bookselling is something that continues to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Our sincere thanks to Mark Forsyth and Icon Books for organising the tour and for selecting us to be amongst some very august bookshops to host the visit during Independent Booksellers Week. Thanks also to the Bookseller's Association for their herculean efforts to make IBW happen.

If you still haven’t paid us a visit to celebrate then any time over the summer we will be pleased to see you – and hopefully you will also discover an Unknown Unknown to discover, to take home and treasure.