Friday, January 27, 2017

Heroic Bookseller's Week - Authors Assemble!

The last full week of January is known as 'Heroic Bookseller's Week'. You didn't know? It's a month after Christmas, we've made it through a grim British January, the news is, well, you know, and the shop is looking a bit bare with all the Christmas books gone, and the shelves cleared to make way for lots of lovely new books heading our way.

But fear not citizens.

Now is the time to turn your face to the unmistakably brightening skies, roll up those sleeves up, and revisit those New Year's resolutions - particularly the ones that promised to spend less time on the Internet, get more sleep, and read more.

Your bookseller stands ready to help, hero like, having made it through the turmoil of a genuinely remarkable 2016. Now is the time to step into a bookshop and ask for our help.

So, with bookselling capes flapping in the cold Winter wind, for your delectation and delight, today we have assembled some truly heroic titles ready to combat the blues, offer alternative worlds for you to visit - and inspire you make a difference.

We are all superheroes - we just need the right book to unleash our superpower...

4321 - Paul Auster
Let's start with The Hulk - or rather, a hulking great near-1000 page magnum opus by Paul Auster. And yes, this is 'Incredible', in every sense of the word. Ostensibly it's the story of Archie Ferguson, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947, and destined to live his life through what we might until recently, called the most momentous period of American history. Deeply autobiographical (and thus in keeping with much of Auster's other writing) the twist here is that Archie's story fragments into four separate strands, which hinges on an event which plays out in four different ways. Multiverses and multiple lives are in the zeitgeist at the moment (think Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life', or Iain Pears' 'Arcadia') and what elevates this novel to brilliance is the quality of the writing. Seven years in the writing, this is what Mark has to say:

"I looked at the size of this book and thought 'no way', not with my TBR pile. But then I started reading and I was hooked, I cannot tell you the sheer joy of the writing, the swirl of grand themes and the way in which all four story arcs intertwine in a way that just works. The last book that pulled me in like this was 'Wolf Hall' and I can feel Auster's characters putting down deep roots inside me. The observations of the inner life of a teenage boy are both all-too-familiar and at-times heartbreaking and this book builds empathy in a way I haven't encountered since Mantel's classic. I can't recommend this book highly enough - 'the great American novel' is one of the hoariest of hoary old cliches in the publishing world, but blimey - if there's a line a novel needs to cross to be called it, this is way, way down the asymptote. Joyous, that's all I can say."

The Keeper of Lost Things - Ruth Hogan
This was described by one reviewer as 'the perfect cure for the winter blues' and we have to agree. Not only is this a beautiful book but also an imaginative and amazing story that winds its way through the lives of many people, and with lost items, a ghost and a very special girl.

One of Julia's favourites his January, she describes it as 'a joy to read, exploring the way lives are interconnected, and how one person can make a profound difference to the stories of others'. Profound and uplifting!

Moonglow - Michael Chabon
This blog is being published on Holocaust Memorial Day, and 'Moonglow' - told as a deathbed confession by an ageing Jewish American engineer - takes in the sweep of world history, from the invasion of Germany to the closing years of the 20th century.

At the heart of this story is the relationship between the protagonist's grandfather and Wernher Von Braun, architect of the Apollo Moonshot, populariser of space exploration - and Nazi war criminal whose background was swept under the carpet during the Cold War. The parallel with Auster are apparent (Chabon is drawing heavily on his own family's history) but the style is utterly different, but the writing is still sublime.

If a big, heft hardback is not your thing, three titles fresh out in paperback might be. Our bookgroup is reading ''The Noise of Time' by Julian Barnes - new out in paperback, is a sympathetic, grimly humorous yet brilliant telling of the story of Shostakovich, specifically his complex relationship with Stalin and the Soviet authorities at the end of the 1930s.

Rose Tremain's 'The Gustav Sonata' is the tale of an intense and deepening friendship between Gustav, a boy growing up in wartime Switzerland, and Anton, an only-child whose parents have big ambitions for him to be a classical pianist. But this is Switzerland in 1942, nothing is as it seems, and as if growing up isn't difficult enough, how do you handle strong feelings when the world seems to be pulling everything apart?

Finally, we loved recommending 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' by Ben Fountain, a satirical look at the strange period in the noughties when celebrity culture, military prowess and an ability to bring regime change around the globe collide grotesquely during the Superbowl for Billy Lynn, freshly returned from Iraq as a war hero, but about to return to duty. It all feels like a lifetime away, but - with a film about to be released - it's a great opportunity to study what might just have been the seeds of the post-truth modern world?

A Quiet Kind of Thunder - Sara Barnard
It's shaping up to be another great year for YA publishing, but Imogen's gone for this refreshing twist on the opposite's attract theme.

When Rhys starts at school, he is introduced to Steffi because both of them know sign language. Rhys is deaf and Steffi has selective mutism, and this is their journey through new experiences, friendship and love. It's a wonderfully refreshing, well researched book (many of the characters nicely play against type) about two individuals trying to find their way in the world. Brilliantly written, there's an extra bonus of a guide to the basics of British Sign Language (BSL) on the end pages!

Friday, January 06, 2017

Eclipse - Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon with Professor Frank Close

On 21 August 2017, over 100 million people will gather across a narrow strip of the USA to witness the most watched total solar eclipse in history.

On Thursday, Feb 2 we're delighted to welcome one of the UK's most well-known and respected physicists and science writer Professor Frank Close to discuss the spellbinding allure of this most beautiful of natural phenomena. He will also be discussing his latest book ‘Eclipse - Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon’, explaining why eclipses happen and revealing their role in history, literature and myth.

He'll also be focusing on 'eclipse chasers', who travel with ecstatic fervour to some of the most inaccessible places on the globe to be present at the moment of totality.

Frank Close lives in Abingdon, and his scientific career and achievements are genuinely outstanding. A professor of physics at the University of Oxford and a former head of the theoretical physics division at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, he is the author of bestselling books Antimatter, Neutrino, The Infinity Puzzle (the story behind the discovery of the Higgs Boson) and 'Half Life' (the true story of Harwell physicist Bruno Pontecorvo).

He has won the Association of British Science Writers award three times, was vice president of the British Association for Advancement of Science and won the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for Science Communication.

Frank will be at Mostly Books on the evening of Thursday, Feb 2nd at 7.30pm. Tickets are £4, to include a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable against a copy of 'Eclipse' on the night. We expect to be full on the night for this wonderful speaker, so please let us know as soon as you can if we can reserve you a space.

We hope to see you on the night!

Friday, December 23, 2016

T'was the Friday Before Christmas...

T'was the Friday before Christmas
And all through the streets
People were shopping
For last-minute treats

Abingdon centre
Was thronging with people
Bells ringing out
from St Nicolas steeple

When suddenly, in Stert Street
There emerged such a clatter
The Mostly Books staff
Looked out - what's the matter?

The strangest of vehicles
Parked in the road
A sledge, and some reindeer
On the back, a large load

Car drivers were staring
Eyes wide in amazement
As a large man in red
Stepped out onto the pavement

He looked all around
(His fat tummy shook)
And declared very loudly
"I need a good book!"

He entered the bookshop
Approached the first shelf
And we couldn't help laughing
At this jolly old elf

We looked at St Nick
And his large rotund belly
Showed him a diet book
('Hairy Bikers', off the telly)

Perhaps what he wanted
As he sat in the sleigh
Was a good work of fiction
As he sped on his way?

We grabbed "Essex Serpent"
by author Sarah Perry
He loved the bright cover
It made him feel merry

But that wasn't quite right
What else could we do?
Showed him a 'Puzzle Book'

Still not quite right
So he nipped out the back
And looked at the children's books
Displayed on the rack

He squeezed into the room
Made such a big rumpus 
The staff stopped and stared
In their bright Christmas jumpers

'Under Earth, Under Water'
Was a big Santa hit
And he pondered a moment
And bent down to sit

So many great books
He took quite a pile
He hunted through shelves
And he took quite a while

"Ah, the new Chris Riddell!"
He cried out "I can carry it!"
A perfect new gift
From the new children's Laureate

Well, soon he was happy
With a big pile of books
'Cogheart' by Bunzl
'Secret Chord' - Geraldine Brooks

He passed on the Walliams
("They'll all have read that")
But took one of the Ladybirds
"How It Works, The Cat"

The Melvyn Bragg title
Had won an award
So he took it, and also
The new Katie Fforde

But just before leaving
He stopped at the exit
"I suppose I should take
Something fun about Brexit!"

With no chimney to shoot up
He just used the door
We swept up the glitter
That was strewn 'cross the floor

And he staggered to Rudolph
Placed the books in his sleigh
"Happy Christmas booklovers
And to all, a good day!"

Happy Christmas from all at Mostly Books!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Books for Christmas 2016 - An England and a war lost, but secrets and treasures re-found - favourite history titles

It's been an era-defining year, no question. At times the bookshop has seemed - more than usual - a haven from the bewildering change that swept through the country and around the globe. One damn thing after another, indeed.

Whilst journalists write the 'first draft of history', next in line are those authors who take a slightly longer view. We place these books under 'History' and here are some of favourite picks from 2016.

Lost England: 1870-1930 - Philip Davies
During his time at English Heritage, architectural historian and trained urban planner Philip Davies spent seven years trawling through the estimated 9 million photographs that are in its archives. The result is a truly astonishing collection of 1500 images, in a 558 page book which we feel would be a wonderful gift to anyone interested in the dramatic changes that have taken place in the country over the past 150 years.

It records England's history as the longstanding practices of a largely rural economy shifted focus into towns and cities: astonishing photographs give the reader access to the streets, living and working spaces of the growing cities as well as the daily routines of rural life. Amongst the pages, you will find images from Abingdon (see the display in our window), as well as a flooded street from Hinksey in Oxford that shows times have not changed quite as much as we might think...

SAS: Rogue Heroes - The Authorized Wartime History - Ben Macintyre
We like to think of Ben Macintyre as 'one of our own', ever since our event with him a few years ago. Since then of course, he has gone on to become one of our most recognisable journalist, authors and television history presenters - and this new authorised history of the SAS may just be his magnum opus.

Ben was given unprecedented access to the secret SAS archives, and has produced this thrilling, at times almost-unbelievable, history of the SAS. Antony Beevor (who also features in this list, see below) describes it as 'impeccably researched, superbly told - by far the best book on the SAS in World War II'.

The story of a bored and eccentric young officer, David Stirling, who came up with a plan that was radical and entirely against the rules: a small undercover unit that would inflict mayhem behind enemy lines. Despite intense opposition, Winston Churchill personally gave Stirling permission to recruit the toughest, brightest and most ruthless soldiers he could find. So began the most celebrated and mysterious military organisation in the world...

We may still have signed copies - so email us to check and reserve one.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble - Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor has a claim to be our most accomplished military historian, and his service background brings a soldier's eye view to books such as Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. 'Ardennes 1944' tells the story of the German's ill-fated final stand. On 16 December, 1944, Hitler launched his 'last gamble' in the snow-covered forests and gorges of the Ardennes. He believed he could split the Allies by driving all the way to Antwerp, then force the Canadians and the British out of the war.

His generals were doubtful of success, but younger officers and NCOs were desperate to believe that their homes and families could be saved from the vengeful Red Army approaching from the east. The Ardennes offensive, with more than a million men involved, became the greatest battle of the war in western Europe.

American troops, taken by surprise, found themselves fighting two panzer armies. Belgian civilians fled, justifiably afraid of German revenge. Panic spread even to Paris. While many American soldiers fled or surrendered, others held on heroically, creating breakwaters which slowed the German advance. The harsh winter conditions and the savagery of the battle became comparable to the eastern front. Beevor's telling is unflinching but masterful.

Black and British: An Untold Story - David Olusoga
A vital re-examination of a shared history, published to accompany the landmark BBC Two series. In 'Black and British', award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga offers readers a rich and revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony and contemporary interviews, Black and British reaches back to Roman Britain, the medieval imagination and Shakespeare's Othello.

It reveals that behind the South Sea Bubble was Britain's global slave-trading empire and that much of the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery. It shows that Black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of the First World War. Black British history can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation.

Pack Up Your Troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War I - James Taylor
Artist-drawn humorous postcards were growing considerably in popularity at the start of the 20th century. When war broke out in 1914 trade in them soared as the government utilised them as a widespread means of communication, to bolster morale, stiffen resolve and lift up the spirits in the field, at sea and on the home front from 1914 to 1919. They were also an excellent tool for recording and commenting on military and civilian events as they unfolded.

'Pack Up Your Troubles' is the first book of its kind to focus exclusively on the impact of British humour in the art of the picture postcards of World War One, both in the field and on the home front. The book is divided into themed chapters of the era, from Camp Life and Training to The Western Front through to Women at War and many more in between. An ideal gift for anyone with an interest in war and military history, art, design and cartoons.

A History of Britain in 100 Dogs - Emma White
As the ultimate dog-loving nation, our history is inextricably entwined with that of our dogs. Through history they have sniffed, rolled, shaken and pawed their way into our hearts, and behind almost every great Briton is a faithful hound.

This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Britain from Roman times to the present and looks at our native British breeds and the extraordinary roles they played in society, from providing entertainment to herding livestock to guiding the visually impaired.

The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers' Journey Through Curiosities of History - Dr Oliver Tearle
A fascinating tour through the curious history of Western civilization told through its most emblematic invention - the book. As well as leafing through the well-known titles that have helped shape the world in which we live, Oliver Tearle also dusts off some of the more neglected items to be found hidden among the bookshelves of the past. You'll learn about the forgotten Victorian novelist who outsold Dickens, the woman who became the first published poet in America and the eccentric traveller who introduced the table-fork to England.

Through exploring a variety of books - novels, plays, travel books, science books, cookbooks, joke books and sports almanacs - 'The Secret Library' highlights some of the most fascinating aspects of our history. It also reveals the surprising connections between various works and historical figures. What links Homer's Iliad to Aesop's Fables? Or Wisden Cricketers' Almanack to the creator of Sherlock Holmes?

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts - Christopher de Hamel
If you are going to write a book about some of the most precious, intricate and sublime books in history, you'd better make the book itself you are writing pretty special - and that's what Christopher de Hamel manages here. Sumptuous is the word that springs to mind, as de Hamel encounters twelve of the most famous manuscripts in existence, their stories, and the buildings in which they are housed.

We learn the stories behind the books. How 'The Book of Kells' was barbarously trimmed by a bookseller in the 19th century. Why it's thought that 'The St Augustine Gospels' (“the oldest non-archaeological artefact of any kind to have survived in England”) reputedly accompanied St Augustine on his 597 papal mission to convert the English to Christianity. And how an English classicist almost managed to buy the sixth-century Greek manuscript, The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (185 pages of purple-dyed vellum, with the Last Supper scene showing the disciples eating with their fingers at a low, eastern-style table). Amazing stories, and a wonderful book.

A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen - Martin Gayford and David Hockney
We were lucky to have supported a recent event with Art Critic Martin Gayford, speaking in Abingdon about his long-time collaboration with David Hockney, and in this impressive book, they show how the making of pictures has a history going back perhaps 100,000 years to an African shell used as a paint palette. Two-thirds of it is irrevocably lost, since the earliest images known to us are from about 40,000 years ago. But what a 40,000 years it's been.

They privilege no medium, or period, or style, but instead, in 16 chapters, discuss how and why pictures have been made, and insistently link 'art' to human skills and human needs. Each chapter addresses an important question: What happens when we try to express reality in two dimensions? Why is the 'Mona Lisa' beautiful and why are shadows so rarely found in Chinese, Japanese and Persian painting? Why are optical projections always going to be more beautiful than HD television can ever be? How have the makers of images depicted movement? What makes marks on a flat surface interesting? Energized by two lifetimes of looking at pictures, combined with a great artist's 70-year experience of experimentation as he makes them, this profoundly moving and enlightening volume will be the art book of the decade.

A History of Britain in 21 Women: A Personal Selection - Jenni Murray
Jenni Murray was ten years old when she came across Boadicea, and realised that the designated future of a girl born in 1950 - to be sweet, domesticated, undemanding and super feminine - was not necessarily the case.

Boadicea battled the Romans. Nancy Astor fought in Parliament. Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned for female suffrage. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became a pioneering physician in a man's profession. Mary Quant revolutionised the fashion industry.

Britain has traditionally been defined by its conflicts, its conquests, its men and its monarchs. It's high time that it was defined by its women. In this unique history, Jenni Murray tells the stories of twenty-one women who refused to succumb to the established laws of society, whose lives embodied hope and change.

We Chose to Speak of War and Strife : The World of the Foreign Correspondent - John Simpson
In corners of the globe where fault-lines seethe into bloodshed and civil war, foreign correspondents have, for hundreds of years, been engaged in uncovering the latest news and - despite obstacles bureaucratic, political, violent - reporting it by whatever means available. It's a working life that is difficult, exciting and undeniably glamorous. 'We Chose to Speak of War and Strife' brings us pivotal moments in our history - from the Crimean War to Vietnam; the siege of Sarajevo to the fall of Baghdad - through the eyes of those who risked life and limb to witness them first hand, and the astonishing tales of what it took to report them.

As nightly news shows us journalists risking their lives reporting from Syria and Iraq, it's appropriate to celebrate an endangered tradition. weaving the tales of the greats of yesterday and today, such as Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Don McCullin and Marie Colvin.

One final honourable mention - out in hardback last year, and now in paperback, for some reason it never made it onto 2015's list (a travesty!) but 'Silk Roads' by Peter Frankopan is one of the finest history books of any year. A monumental re-framing of the story of trade between East and West, the region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture - and shaping the modern world. This is where civilization itself began, where the world's great religions were born and took root - a hugely important book and one we wholeheartedly recommend to be on your bookshelves!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Books for Christmas 2016 - It's life Jim, but not as we know it: festive thoughts on life, consciousness, and the future of humanity!

Abingdon sits in the middle of one of the most exciting parts of the world for science - and we mean, anywhere. Within a few miles of the shop door, we have fusion reactors, cyclotrons, satellite assembly buildings, and state of the art facilities for making everything from radiation protection equipment to deep-space optics.

So it's fantastic that we're involved in the Abingdon-on-Thames Science Festival (ATOM!) which next year takes place March 24-26. You can find out more here - but to whet your appetite, here are some of our favourite science and nature titles which we think make great gifts for the curious this Christmas.

13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution - Colin Stuart with a forward by Tim Peake
Anyone of a certain age will remember the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures - but it may surprise you to learn that they started in 1825 (by Michael Faraday) and continue to the present day. In this gem of a book, with it's beautiful space-time warping cover, space and science Journalist Colin Stuart has curated thirteen 'Journeys Through Time and Space', including Carl Sagan's 1977 'The Planets' and abingdonian Frank Close's 1993 'The Cosmic Onion'. Concluding with Kevin Fong's 2015 'Surviving in Space' (when he was joined by Tim Peake, who writes the forward) this is a little book with a big impact - and a wonderful gift for astronauts young and old!

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow - Yuval Noah Harari
Anyone who has come into the shop in the last couple of years will have had a copy of 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari pressed into their hands. There aren't many books that get universally recommended in our shop, we think everyone deserves personalised recommendations, but with 'Sapiens' (like 'The Martian' or 'Pride and Prejudice') we make an exception: everyone should read. It featured in Mark's essay on 'How Reading Shapes Our Realities' and is no less than the epic story of our species. But the ending finished on a bit of a cliffhanger - what's going to happen next to our species?

In 'Homo Deus' Harari sets off to find out, along the way taking in a variety of post-apocalyptic and frankly frightening scenarios, mostly involving the end of the world as a whimper rather than a bang, with a few spectacular Jeff Bezos-style winners, but the vast majority not losers as such, but managed, monitored, little more than biochemical systems plugged into a global network relieving boredom in ever more immersive virtual-reality fictions to save our fragile mental states.

If all this sounds depressing, it isn't. Harari offers plenty of 'it doesn't have to be that way' alternatives which actually makes this book surprisingly upbeat and inspiring. After all, the big thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness -
Sy Montgomery
In 2011 Sy Montgomery wrote a feature for Orion magazine entitled 'Deep Intellect' about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death. It went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. In this frankly incredible - and very thought-provoking - book, Sy discusses the nature of personality and intelligence as her appreciation of the octopus deepens.

Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But what thoughts might they have? The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their colour-changing camouflage techniques.

By turns funny, entertaining, touching and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.

Reality is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli
Last year, Carlo Rovelli's 'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' was an unexpected hit, a little gem of a book, which purported to offer no less than a complete explanation of all the big theories of modern physics. Rovelli has now written 'Reality is Not What It Seems' an at-times mind-bending look at nothing less than our understanding of reality. From Democritus to loop quantum gravity, he invites us to imagine a whole new world where black holes are waiting to explode, spacetime is made up of grains, and infinity does not exist.

Aliens: Is There Anyone Out There? - Jim Al-Khalili
Professor Jim Al-Khalili is one of our most celebrated science broadcasters and communicators, and two years ago spoke at the ATOM! Festival on the chequered and still-controversial area of quantum biology. He will return to Abingdon for the 2017 festival, so to celebrate, we're recommending 'Aliens', a collection of twenty articles from some of our most esteemed thinkers on the subject of aliens, and whether or not they exist. Contributors include Martin Rees, Ian Stewart and Adam Rutherford, and cover every aspect of the subject, from alien consciousness to the neuroscience behind alien abductions. And along the way he'll cover science fiction, the probability of us finding extra-terrestrial life, and whether the explosion in the number and variety of recently-discovered exoplanets might support life.

How the Zebra Got its Stripes - Leo Grasset
Billed as a set of Darwinian 'Just So Stories', this is a collection of sparky, wondrous stories from Leo Grasset, one of France's brightest natural scientists - with an equally engaging translation by Barbara Mellor.

Why do giraffes have such long necks? Why are zebras striped? Why are buffalo herds broadly democratic while elephants prefer dictatorships? What explains the architectural brilliance of the termite mound or the complications of the hyena's sex life? And why have honey-badgers evolved to be one of nature's most efficient agents of mass destruction? Deploying the latest scientific research and his own extensive observations on the African savannah, Leo Grasset offers some answers to these and many other intriguing questions. Showing that natural phenomena are rarely simple, he brings evolutionary biology and lateral thinking to explain the mysteries of animal behaviour in terms that everyone can understand and marvel at.

The Earth and I - James Lovelock et al
For once, a book that is both brilliant and urgent. In our post-truth world, no subject seems to attract more attention from commentators keen to drown out the increasing consensus that humans are significantly - and irrevocably - altering the planet. Insults are hurled and facts pile up until even the most engaged and informed feel overwhelmed.

This wonderful book, rather than adding to the data load, aims to offer real understanding. James Lovelock leads an all-star cast of contributors to describe how human beings are extraordinary creatures, and how we have adapted and invented our way to becoming the most important species on the planet. So great is the extent of our influence, that many speak of a new geological era, the Anthropocene, an age defined by human-induced change to the blue and green globe we call home. Our lofty status comes with responsibility as much as possibility: How should we approach our present and future?

Conceived by James Lovelock, and delving into everything from stellar explosions to neuroscience, contributors include quantum physicist Lisa Randall, astronomer royal Martin Rees, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel - all illustrated by British artist Jack Hudson, Across 12 chapters, they take in both the intricate details and immense structures of our species and our planet, from our ever-expanding universe to our minuscule but mighty cells.

Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World - Tim Harford
Mixing science and business, this is one of Mark's favourite books of the year, and is a constant delight to read, as well as containing inspiration to both understand and engage with our ever complex world. With Big Data on the march, and faceless corporation increasingly nudging us into better - or rather, different - behaviour, the urge to label, tidy, straightjacket and optimise human activities has serious and far-reaching implications for us, particularly when it comes to being creative.

Tim Harford is a journalist and economist who looks at the surprising science, economic theories and latest discoveries that look at everything from musical genius, to self-driving cars, from how to manage email to how we raise our children. This really is a must-read. The algorithms that control our lives are only going to increase - we need to be ready to respond.

Can You Solve My Problems? A Casebook of Ingenious, Perplexing and Totally Satisfying Puzzles - Alex Bellos
Are you smarter than a Singaporean ten-year-old? Can you beat Sherlock Holmes? If you think the answer is yes - Alex Bellos challenges you to solve his problems. Spinning out from a puzzle he set on the Guardian website in 2015 which went viral across the globe, Bellos here tells nothing less than the story of the puzzle, one of mankind's oldest and greatest forms of entertainment and enlightenment, told through 125 of the world's best brainteasers from the last two millennia.

It takes us from ancient China to medieval Europe, Victorian England to modern-day Japan, with stories of espionage, mathematical breakthroughs and puzzling rivalries along the way. Pit your wits against logic puzzles and kinship riddles, pangrams and river-crossing conundrums. Some solutions rely on a touch of cunning, others call for creativity, others need mercilessly logical thought. Some can only be solved by 2 per cent of the population...

The Cyber Effect - Mary Aiken
We know the wonders of technology, and of course there are whole industries out there extolling the virtues of an always-on, app-powered, mobile enabled Internet-of-everything. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of people who are drawing attention to the downsides - the damaging effect the Internet is having on everything from our attention spans, to ability to form relationships.

In 'The Cyber Effect' - once you get past the US-style self-promotion on the cover (!) - psychologist Mary Aiken provides a measured and sober analysis of the effect the cyber world is having on us, our brains, our relationships and - most worryingly - our children. It makes the point that we all have to take responsibility in ensuring that the ease with which disturbing (and warping) content on the Internet is shaping the minds of both us and our children.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Books for Christmas 2016 - Haunted mountains, popish plotting and serpent slaying - simply the best new fiction of 2016

In the 1740s, in a little village in England, a group of excited people sat in a blacksmith's forge. The blacksmith himself sat on his anvil, and read aloud to the crowd from a newly-published novel, 'Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded'. Over a number of nights the villagers listened in rapt attention, and when - at the novel's end, and almost overcome with emotion at the book's happy ending - they flocked to the church to set the bells ringing.

Now, we can't promise that any of the following books will make you want to set bells ringing, but we all know that feeling that comes from finishing a really good book. Samuel Richardson would, we feel, approve - and we know (anecdotally, much like the story above) that novels are increasingly how we take a break from the always-on, screen-addicted, Internet-of-everything, twittering world in which we live.

Here are some of our favourites from 2016. Think of it as therapy, entertainment, deep thinking and digital firebreak all wrapped up in a centuries-old piece of communications technology. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you...the novel.

Himself - Jess Kidd
There is a freshness and lightness of touch here that collides brilliantly with the dark story of Mahony - drop-dead gorgeous, abandoned as a baby, his mother long-since disappeared - returning to his place of birth on a mission of discovery, conquest and (possibly) revenge.

Mulderrig is a rain-sodden speck of a place on Ireland's west coast, and Mahony brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the lies of his past. Playing against stereotypes, this darkly funny mystery has a cast of great characters (alive and dead), with a twisting plot and a shocking secret at its core. This feels like a bold new talent announcing herself - via Himself - to the world.

Don't miss out other debuts of the year - on a dedicated shelf in the shop (as shown above) - including 'The Girls' by Emma Cline, 'The Trouble with Sheep and Goats' by Joanna Cannon and 'A Boy Made of Blocks' by Keith Stuart

Cartes Postales from Greece - Victoria Hislop
This is a book which really does do justice to the phrase 'sumptuous'. At its heart it's the story of a young woman, who starts to receive a mysterious series of postcards from Greece. Initially wary, eventually beguiled, when the postcards abruptly stop - and a journal arrives detailing a young man's journey across Greece - the young woman sets off to discover the country - and investigate the mystery - for herself.. 

This is the latest novel from the bestselling author of 'The Island' and is a love-letter to a country Hislop has fallen in love with (she has even learned Greek, and has been doing book events locally in the language - now that is courageous). But it's the postcards themselves that are, in a way, the real star of this book. A lovely gift for any reader who wants to have their heart stolen...

Smoke - Dan Vyleta
Smoke is a visible manifestation of vice and sin, and provide a powerful metaphor for class division in this bold, original and compelling novel which weaves fantasy and superb characterisation throughout.

The working class pour Smoke freely and their vice and sin are shown openly and often revelled in - but aristocrats are taught from a young age to control their Smoke. In an Oxford boarding school, two young boys develop a bond as they receive their instructions in a world where the upper class are spotless. But on a trip to London, they witness something that seems to challenge all of their beliefs - and what follows is a tense, suspenseful and entrancing story with three young characters who are beautifully drawn and suck you into their world. One of Julia's big picks of 2016 - and definitely an author to get excited about!

Conclave - Robert Harris
Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world's most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals. Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth...

If there is one writer who can be guaranteed to deliver a thriller that combines page-turning tension, intellectual heft and world-shaking events, it Mr Harris. Last year he completed the Cicero trilogy, and this year he takes us deep into the mysterious world of a papal Conclave (literally from a Latin phrase "room that can be locked up") where a new pope is going to be elected. It was - in part - inspired by the revelation of an unpublished 'secret diary' of the 2005 papal conclave, Claustrophobic, gripping and all about the nature of power - and the opportunities that can arise to take it.

Thin Air - Michelle Paver
What could be more Christmassy than a good ghost story? Well, forget cosy fireside warmth, this is a ghost story which is chilling in every possible way, from a legendary children's author now making a reputation in the world of adult fiction. It weaves natural - and supernatural - terrors with the dizzying vertigo and oxygen-deprived heights of a pitiless mountain. And inspired by a true story...

The Himalayas, 1935. Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all. Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far - and the mountain is not their only foe. Rivalry, class divisions, ego and pride. As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried. And sometimes, the truth does not set you free...

To be read late at night, with the window opened, in the depth of winter. We don't think. Seriously unsettling.

Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
When her debut 'After Me Comes the Flood' was published, we loved it, recommending it to readers (and on BBC Radio Oxford back in 2014). We recognised a major new talent arriving on the scene, and her new novel 'The Essex Serpent' cements it. Here's Nicki's review from earlier this year:

"The friends of newly-widowed Cora Seaborne in Victorian England are indulging their passions for science, medicine and social reform. Cora is just happy to be out of an abusive relationship and finding herself both independent and wealthy, she is determined to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Mary Anning, and discover fossils. 

Her amateur geology draws her to a tiny village in Essex and rumours of a giant sea serpent, perhaps still living from prehistoric times. Science and Darwin have yet to penetrate the mud and the salt marshes and fear and rumour about the serpent means every crop failure, every death, is attributed to the creature. Local pastor, William, is having trouble convincing his flock and not allow myth and hysteria to take over.

A finely-tuned cast of characters get drawn to the beguiling Cora and her quest for science to be able to answer every question with reason. They all do battle on her behalf as she argues against superstition, pagan fear and religion. But whether it’s a community increasingly troubled by fear of the unknown, or the urban squalor Cora’s friends back in London are struggling to reform, the ideals of science have much to contend with in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age. 

As rumours and sightings of the serpent persist, will the ideals of science triumph in this rich and wonderfully human story of the clashes of the Victorian age."

(And 'The Essex Serpent' wins the prize for book with the most exquisite cover as well!)

Nutshell - Ian McEwan
This is - very loosely - a retelling of Hamlet, from the perspective of an unborn child in the womb, who - in this rather privileged position - listens in as a murder plot which is seemingly unfolding.

It's also daring, original and darkly funny - full of McEwan's trademark humour, social observation and focus on small, key events. With a great twisting plot, and played with tongue firmly in cheek, this is great entertainment from a master novelist.

Golden Hill - Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford is a publisher's marketing nightmare - everything he writes is so completely different. He's written a series of historical vignettes charting the rise and fall of Khrushchev's Soviet Union (Red Plenty), a book on why Christianity makes emotional sense (Unapologetic) or how re-reading the books he read as a child gave him insight into the man he became (The Child That Books Built). But his erractic brilliance is our huge gain, because 'Golden Hill' is a fresh, original book - and one of Mark's favourite books of this (or any) year.

A young man arrives in the fledgling city of New-York in 1746, seemingly in possession of a fortune. Tongues are wagging, conspiracies are imagined but what is the truth? This book will utterly transport you to the very different time and place of America a generation before the Revolution, when Dutch and English settlers maintained an uneasy relationship with the British Crown. Foreshadowing the America to come, written in an 18th century novelistic style that shouldn't work but does, this is breathtaking, brilliant - you should read it!

Divine Countenance - Michael Hughes
In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something. In 1888 five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master. In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns. And in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later. But where does the feeling come from that the world is about to end?

Computer nerd Chris is working on the Millennium bug problem when he meets Lucy. What starts out as a boy meet girl story slowly transforms itself into a tangled web, with letters from Jack the Ripper, a journal from the time of William Blake and a story from Milton’s time seaping into each other. As Michael Hughes uses these four different voices to tell four interlinked stories which rub off each other and weave together to create an apocalyptic thriller.  This is a book of poetry, creation, obsessions and visions of the end of the world. A huge work of imagination!