Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Man Like Any Other

Mary Cavanagh is an author who we've got to know and love since opening at the shop. But just in case you think we boost her books because she's a mate - you should go check out reviews from as far afield as The Big Green Bookshop, dovegreyreader and Ex Libris in the US. Last year we did an evening event with Mary and discussed her book The Crowded Bed in the shop - and we've watched with excitement and trepidation as Mary's new book - A Man Like Any Other - approached launch date. We were therefore delighted to welcome her back last week and have the chance to hear something about the book - and Mary's development as a writer.

Great first novels from writers with bags of potential are one thing - but the 'tricky second album' syndrome often means the next book is disappointing; it's as if the author got everything they wanted to say out into the open in the first book - and now they are simply going through the motions. What you want to see - as a fan - is the writer developing, keeping a firm hold on the style and themes that you liked in previous books, whilst showing ambition in terms of moving in new directions. A Man Like Any Other (or AMLAO as I'm already referring to it as) delivers on this last score. We think the book is fantastic - but, as I say, you might think we're biased so go read the cracking review that Miranda Stock has written on Oxford's Daily Info - the book is garnering plenty of rave reviews elsewhere. I was trying to think of exactly why I like Mary's writing. I think - and I can only speak personally - it comes down to how I got to where I am as a reader, and my shameful past of reading vast quantities of 'success literature'. Like any genre, there are the one or two great books, a few other good ones - and the rest also-rans which are usually fairly derivative. I think the good ones tell you something about the tools you need to achieve your goals, whereas the great ones tell you about the goals themselves. That covers the journey and the destination, but most success books tend to fall-down on the embarkation point, knowing who you are and where you are starting from. This is where great fiction steps in. Forget work-through exercises trying to identify your personality type, instead map yourself onto different characters in challenging situations and ask yourself questions: Would I have done that? Why does this feel wrong? Mary gets under the skin of her characters (particularly the men) in a way which is often discomforting - which usually indicates that there are truths lurking around nearby. Whilst the situations and plot twists may not always be strictly realistic, this is storytelling after all - and bold storytelling at that. Keeping the reader turning the page and teaching them a thing or two about life is not to be sniffed at; you often get one without the other. On Wednesday night Mary read from the book, and gave us some fascinating insights into the development of the main character. When Mary contributed a short story to the book The Sixpenny Debt, she imagined how the little boy in that story would have grown up, and the ain character in AMLOA is the result: Father McEwan. She also shared her journey in terms of getting the book published (which I won't go into here, but is at times as dramatic as her writing). Suffice to say it was an illuminating evening. A Man Like Any Other is published by Troubador - and it goes without saying that we have plenty of signed copies in the shop.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Deadly Samurai in Abingdon

On September 25th, we did a splendid event with hot new children's author Chris Bradford at Larkmead School. Chris is a samurai swordsman who has written a book based on research he did in Japan (and his own experiences) set in the 17th century. Young Samurai: Way of the Warrior is a cracking - if somewhat grisly - read (two particularly nasty deaths in the first 8 pages) which tells the story of young Jack Fletcher, a Westerner who trains in the way of the samurai. Chris fought off deadly Ninja assassins to get to Abingdon (they were disguised as First Great Western train officials, but Chris recognised them for the saboteurs they were) to beat train delays and give an enthralling demonstration and reading to Year 7. Chris commanded undivided attention, partly because of interest in the book, mostly because of his Samurai demonstrations with a real sword inches from the front row. Any author looking to spice up an upcoming reading of their book at a bookshop might take a leaf out of Chris' book:

Despite sparing no details in his descriptions of 'ham-sandwiching' opponents, Chris's message about the way of the samurai was one of discipline and respect. He answered questions about samurai, showed clips from real samurai training schools in Japan - and gave probably too much information about a Japanese energy drink called "Sweat". Chris signed copies for the pupils, then leapt off for a date with destiny (actually a demonstration at the School of Martial Arts in Oxford). It was a great event - the school was buzzing - you can read more here.

Eliza Graham

The longer I do this job, the more I sneakily suspect that lots of booksellers have a secret hankering to be authors. Which probably won't ever happen - so the next best thing is to feel that you have discovered a famous author - who then goes on to be extremely successful. Now, I can't claim that we discovered Eliza Graham - Macmillan New Writing did that - but I'm dead chuffed that we got to know Eliza earlier this year, picked Playing With The Moon for the front table when it first came out, did it for our bookgroup, then watched delighted (and slightly smugly) as it was picked for the Books to Talk about shortlist. We then ran a wonderful event during the Arts Festival just before the shortlist was announced. Anyway, when Eliza asked if she could launch her new book Restitution at Mostly Books, we were delighted. Eliza herself has already blogged about the event - so my apologies for the tardiness in getting our report online (particularly remiss given it was such a wonderful event). Restitution is a very powerful novel, dealing with themes familiar to fans of PWTM - seismic events in war-time that still resonate years late, buried secrets and their slow uncovering as the novel progresses. Stylistically the book is also similar, splitting as it does between a number of time periods both before and after the war. But the similarities end there. Restitution - I feel - shows the author more confidently tackling bigger and more challenging themes (something you want to see in a favourite writer) even if - as here - the themes of hatred, retribution, the terrible cost particularly on women at the end of the Second World War - do not make easy reading. Here, Eliza talks about some of the motivations she had for writing the novel:
What I particularly liked about the launch was the mix of people who attended - family and friends of Eliza, and fans of Eliza who have discovered the book through us. It was a lovely atmosphere, and we really appreciated the opportunity to host this very special evening in the shop.