Friday, September 19, 2014

Become a fan of family reading

We’re hoping we can persuade you to start a new family tradition – we want you to start a family reading group.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reading.

There are plenty of studies and research into this. There’s all the obvious stuff, stuff you probably know (although it is worth reminding yourself occasionally). Reading improves concentration, vocabulary and comprehension. 

But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that children who read for pleasure do better in just about every area of human activity. Interestingly, all these studies show it's the reading of fiction that seems to open doors into wider experiences.

There is now compelling evidence that links reading with creativity. And creativity seems to be the key skill in responding to a rapidly changing world.

Reading can quieten the noise of a 24/7 twittering world clamouring for attention and creates a space in which to explore, consider and think. It teaches us to be happier within ourselves. 

Yet reading is on the decline. Literacy is significantly in decline for both adults and children.

Like any skill, it is more difficult to start it again if you don’t commit to doing it regularly.

Reading is a skill like anything else. Want to be better at football? Train more, get fitter. Want to be better at reading? Read more, get better.

So many people come into our shop and tell us how they would really like their children to read more (mostly because they recognise how good it is for them – but hopefully, also, because it is FUN).

But do your children ever see you read?

Admit it, you tend to read just before going to bed. Or from an electronic gadget. When do they ever see you obviously taking time during the day, when you are not tired, to put aside everything else to enjoy a book? 

Children (particularly boys) can hit an age when they look at their parents and think ‘this isn’t something my Mum or Dad do for fun, it’s babyish’. And as levels of schoolwork increase, and life gets ever more complex, reading for pleasure seems like a luxury.

So here’s our idea: start a family reading group. It’s simple, compelling and we think you’re going to really enjoy it.

How to start a family reading group.

“The path of a reader is not a runway but more a hack through a forest, with individual twists and turns, entanglements and moments of surprise.” – June Holden

And it always helps not to do it alone!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Independent Reading - some books for the referendum

We've had a lot of discussions about the Scottish Referendum in the shop with customers over the past week. Some have been a bit bemused by the whole thing, some intrigued, some saddened. But for anyone living in Scotland and allowed to vote, it must be exciting and heady; it's only about once a generation that democracy brings potential for genuine change.

Unable as we are to vote, however, we thought we might come up with a few of our favourite books - recently published - that contain themes being played out in what is this evening (on Sep 17) the northern part of the United Kingdom.

'And the Land Lay Still' by James Robertson is possibly the novel to read that encapsulates the modern history of Scotland. This ambitious, sweeping tale grows out of a retrospective exhibition of photographs to take in a quest for Scottish identity, but one set within the ebbs and flows of politics and culture from the wider world. If you (unfairly) had to pick a custodian of Scottish culture and identity, it'd be Robertson  - and the complex feelings stirred up by Thursday’s votes are almost encapsulated in miniature by an extract from the novel you can read here.

It has been fascinating (and disconcerting) in the past few weeks to see the various 'iron fists' slip out of numerous velvet gloves, as the big guns come out to defend the union. We know of no other recent novel that describes this process better than ‘Other People’s Money’ by Justin Cartwright (who lives very near here). The modus operandi of 'power' is something we should all take a keen interest in, but in this tale of a fading banking family's attempts to shore up their business in the face of the credit crunch, Cartright absolutely nails the slow stripping away of breeding and manners when entrenched power is really threatened. You'll never look at newspaper headlines in the same way again (and if you're interested in power-plays, this analysis post-vote is well worth reading)...

Of course, you might just want to skip the metaphors and go for a factual expose of who runs the country and how they do it. Owen Jones' ‘The Establishment’ caused a stir even before it was published, but this passionate, consistent and brilliant investigation into the often shadowy (and unaccountable) organisations and individuals who control almost every aspect of our lives is a tour de force. Yes, Owen is an (unashamed) leftie, but whichever side of the political divide you happen to be on, we can all agree that some aspects of social justice in this country could be improved upon...

Lighter in tone, but pitch-perfect in its observations of modern Britain, 'Meeting the English' by Kate Clanchy provides us with a wry look at English (or, more accurately, London) life from a Scotman. Kate talked about this book when she visited the shop over the Summer, and her eloquent poetic sensibilities gives us a highly entertaining read.

Thatcher (or more accurately Thatcherism) is often fingered as the big baddie that stoked Scotland to the edge of independence (as this Spitting Image sketch from 1987 demonstrates), but in Damian Barr's 'Maggie and Me' he paints a far more nuanced interpretation of the 1980s, with his touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher's Britain, and of growing up gay in the shadow of the Ravenscraig Steelworks. We read this book for our morning bookgroup earlier this year, and it provoked a lot of uneasy discussion.

'Acts of Union and Disunion' by Linda Colley examines the Union in the context of a wider historical context. Is the Scottish nationalism a recent phenomenon, or just another piece of the longer break-up of empire? A short but extremely thought-provoking book. If the union of Scotland and England was really just a joint-venture for Empire, is it time to break-up - or renegotiate?

Finally, and no matter who prevails in the vote, Graham Robb's 'The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe' provides a neat historical perspective that reminds us that before Empire, before The Union, even before The Romans, we were part of a much older connection with Europe - one which still echoes in our landscape and cultures. Based on original - and breathtaking - research, Robb has pieced together hitherto unknown aspects of the Celts, revealing a civilization of previously unrecognised intellectual sophistication.

So there we are - our contribution (albeit slight) so some of the themes thrown up in recent weeks. Whatever the vote on Thursday, we’ll still be living on the same island, we’ll still have the same Scottish friends, and we’ll still be facing the same global problems that threaten the world and don’t care a jot about borders or nationality. I think all of us who perceive ourselves as underdogs feel - as Philip Pullman says - 'a bit yessish', and if voters go to the polls and gain catharsis of ‘sticking it to the man’, it might lead all of us to scrutinise and challenge the status quo just that bit harder – yes or no, might that not be a good thing?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forbidden books, dangerous secrets and a deadly can only be the BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub

There was a lot happening in the book world on Monday. A quivering of anticipation about the Booker Shortlist and a national debate about a reading crisis among children. Oh, and the busiest time of year for new titles arriving at bookshops up and down the country.

What better time to step into the fray and recommend a few titles?

As always, you can listen to the show on BBC iPlayer until Monday Sep 15 - fast forward to 1 hour and 7 minutes - there is also a cracking interview with Kate Mosse in which she discusses her writing, and what inspired her to become an author.

Here are some of the books we discussed:

As far as themes go, they don’t get much bigger than the entire history of our species. Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ is one of those monumental works that gives a dizzying perspective on how we came to rule – and threaten – the entire planet. It starts with the changes in our brain that allowed us to tell stories, imagine alternative scenarios, and out-manoeuvre other species (notably Neanderthals). From there we become farmers, develop religion, invent money, harness technology and threaten widespread extinction – including our own. The writing is superb – never dry, occasionally brazen, at times almost sardonic – and never afraid to come off the fence in areas that are controversial: did we domesticate wheat, or did it domesticate us? Did stockpiling food lay the psychological seeds for consumerism? Are we happier now than *any* of our ancestors? And what is going to replace our species, as surely as we replaced earlier species?

In 'Archie Greene and the Magicians Secret' by DD Everest, Archie receives a mysterious book on his birthday, written in a language he doesn't recognise, and one with a Special Instruction. Archie must then travel to Oxford to return the book to the Museum of Magical Miscellany. The journey leads Archie to discover the world of the Flame Keepers - a community devoted to finding and preserving magical books. But the magical book under Archie's protection is dangerous, and dark spirits hunt it out. With the help of his new-found cousins, Archie must do everything he can to uncover the book's hidden powers and save the Flame Keepers from evil.

Archie’s adventure takes place in an Oxford bookshop (one that sounds nothing like Mostly Books!), full of underground caverns that house the books of dark magic under lock and key, and fantastical creatures and people busy at work keeping magical books in the right conditions. It’s a fabulously imagined and exciting tale, beautifully produced, with a special Oxford flavour!

In terms of suspense, we don't think anything can match Tana French's 'The Secret Place', a journey into the dark heart of loyalties, rivalries and secrets in the intense emotional landscape of teenage lives. A murder at an exclusive girls school gives detective Stephen Moran the chance for his big break - and an open door into the Dublin murder squad. But the suspects he has to crack are a bunch of close-knit girls, to whom friendship is more important than playing by any other rules. Trying to get teenagers to talk is about as impossible as enjoying working with Detective Antoinette Conway - tough, prickly, an outsider - with a background that couldn't be less like the suspects they are trying to win over. Both have a lot at stake and watching them in action is really compelling, particularly in the claustrophobic school setting as they move painfully closer to the truth. A really different, original piece of crime fiction.

To hear all these books - and plenty more (including the latest Martin Amis) click the link and fast forward to 1 hour 7 minutes...

(You'll remember last month we were raving about 'The Bone Clocks' by author David Mitchell? Kat interviewed David on the show yesterday and you can listen to *that* interview here by forwarding to 2 hours and 7 minutes...)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's been a Vintage Summer in more ways than one...

The end of August is always a good time to look back and reflect, before everyone has fully returned to school and the madness of Chr*stm*s starts to ramp up. But 2014 has been a Vintage Summer for us in more ways than one...

The gorgeous weather has meant that we've been able to do every single event since May in our beautiful courtyard garden, and our reading community have shared some very special moments with authors Alison Mercer, Bethan Roberts, Mark Forsyth, Louise Millar, Kate Clanchy and, yes, The Gruffalo. We've also been able to hold four bookgroup meetings in the garden as well...

Winning the 'Julia Donaldson Children's Independent Bookshop of the Month' for August meant a lot to us. We have had a lot of families in over the Summer, and we're looking forward to discovering (slightly nervously) how well our recommends went down over the long Summer holiday!

We also spent the whole of August celebrating Vintage Books - so if you did wonder what the weird, wonderful and, yes, 'vintage' items in the window were for the last month - now you know...
And we can't resist sharing a few pictures with you...
Our thanks to various family members for the props - and particularly to Oxfam just down the road who loaned us various delicate pieces for display!
We are still running our 'buy one, get another half-price' promotion mixing contemporary favourites such as William Boyd's 'Solo' with classics such as Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'... so if you haven’t had a chance to take a look at the great titles in this promotion, then you have one more week to enjoy!
If you need any inspiration for how to choose a good mix of interesting titles, for the whole of August we have been sharing our favourite Vintage titles with the hashtag #VintageSummer for young and old on Twitter - and we've collected all of them - and responses - in a single, storified, page.
Our bookgroups have been reading 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks and 'I Am Forbidden' by Anouk Markovits – why not choose a classic to curl up with as the nights start slowly to draw in?
This week is also the last chance to join in with our 'cover treasure hunt' - children need to identify eight Vintage titles from cover details for a chance to win a great prize from Vintage.

We kicked off our 'Vintage Summer' with author Bethan Roberts...
...and we'll be closing our Vintage Summer by supporting Lewis Dartnell with his book 'The Knowledge' at The Unicorn Theatre, just down the road in Abingdon on Thursday, September 4 with Science Oxford Live...
Why not come along and hear an interesting, erudite and witty debate on how to rebuild civilization in the event of an apocalypse? You never know when these things might come in handy...

Friday, August 29, 2014

Steady thy laden head: The Bone Clocks, The Secret Place and The Paying Guests

You may think 'the warm days will never cease' (although if you've been holidaying in the UK recently, this won't be uppermost in your mind) but the hints of Autumn and early September can only mean one thing - some of the biggest books of the year are arriving in bookshops, and front tables groan like harvest festival altars.

Picking three books from this cornucopia is a tad tricky, but here are three books we wholeheartedly recommend you make time to read.

It's been five years (yes, I had to double-check that) since 'The Little Stranger' so a new title from Sarah Waters is both an event and a celebration. 'The Paying Guests' is a tale set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, with its backdrop of bewildering social change, faded elegance and missing men.

Frances and her mother are forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet, and so Lil and Len enter their lives: different class, different mores. At first Frances gains only glimpses of their lives through open doors, and sounds snatched through walls of the solid old house. But as time goes on, these barriers start to break down with increasingly dark and dramatic consequences. Waters' fans will love it, and it's going to introduce her to a whole new readership. Incidentally, amidst all the focus on sacrifice, duty and the physical fighting, the book is a welcome reminder of the devastating social consequences of the war.

In terms of suspense, we don't think anything can match the Tana French's 'The Secret Place', a journey into the dark heart of loyalties, rivalries and secrets of the intense emotional landscape of teenage lives.

A murder at an exclusive girls school gives Stephen Moran the chance for his big break - and an open door into the murder squad. But the suspects he has to crack are a bunch of close-knit girls, to whom friendship is more important than playing by any other rules. Trying to get teenagers to talk is about as impossible as enjoying working with Detective Antoinette Conway - tough, prickly, an outsider - with a background that couldn't be less like the suspects they are trying to win over. Both have a lot at stake and
watching them in action is really compelling, particularly in the claustrophobic school setting as they move painfully closer to the truth. A really different, original piece of crime fiction.

Finally - and we are going to unashamedly go slightly over the top about this one - you must, must, read 'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell.

Having received an early copy a few weeks ago, it is one of the most brilliantly original, bold and quality pieces of writing we’ve enjoyed in what has been an extremely strong year for great writing. The Booker judges have also agreed, placing it on their longlist of the best books of the year.

Starting in 1984, when a young Holly Sykes runs away from home in the aftermath of a disastrous teen romance, ‘The Bone Clocks’ unfolds in leaps and bounds, to the present day and then into the future, as a cast of misfits, misanthropes, writers and war heroes entwine themselves into Holly’s life – and she unwittingly gets caught up in a global battle for power that has been going on for centuries. Themes and deep truths swirl like snowflakes, but at its heart is an extended, wonderful and breaktaking riff on the true nature of our own mortality.

We don't often do this - no book can appeal to everyone - but we really urge you to read this. Mitchell has taken big risks with this story. Quirkiness abounds, at times you get the feeling you are reading a YA thriller, with dystopian and supernatural elements, sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny. Characters from David’s previous novels rear their heads at various parts of the narrative. For some people, it'll be too much. But, blimey, this is such good writing...

So what we’re saying is: take a risk. We loved it so much, we've sweet-talked the publisher into securing some signed first-editions, so email us if you would like us to reserve a copy.

There you go - three books from many, many others we could have chosen. That's our favourites - what are yours? Come in and find out...

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!