Thursday, December 16, 2010

Toby, King of Shops

On Monday, someone turned up at our shop at lunchtime, asking if we needed any help. I'm always up for extra help at this time of year - particularly if the person doesn't need paying - so I heartily agreed. He also stated that he had some 'trade experience', so - after taking off his coat and accepting a cup of tea - he set to work.
The visitor, of course, was Toby Mundy of Atlantic Books, and we had 'won' him for the day courtesy of a brilliant initiative from the Faber Alliance entitled "Hire a CEO". So how did it work out?

Well, Toby was hard-working, friendly and - I have to say - a crackerjack salesman. We had what might euphemistically be termed a 'busy day' on Monday, and there were plenty of people seeking help for gift ideas - and Toby was very happy to help out.

It turns out that he comes from a family of retailers, which definitely showed itself in the easy way he assisted customers in their purchases.

Toby also kindly stayed around, and we ran an evening event in a packed shop. He talked about the origins of Atlantic, the ethos (and philosophy) of independent publishing, and the opportunities that now exist for indie publishers as an unexpected consequence of the end of the Net Book Agreement (amongst many other things). As always, Gaskella has written up a vastly superior account of the evening on her blog, which I would suggest should be essential reading for anyone interested in publishing, retailing, or indeed anyone 'in the biz' if only as a refresher for things you *think* you know already...

For me, however, the chance to spend a day in the company of someone with such experience and perspective in the books industry was both hugely enjoyable, instructional - and absolutely priceless. During the course of the day Toby had comments to make on different aspects of the shop, from merchanising and stock selection to the and potential directions for the business in the future. All of these were made obliquely, and offered up with a genuine desire to help us do better. Nicki and I have already made some changes to the shop, and these have been having an impact.

For us, it was a bit like having a visit from "Mary Queen of Shops", and I hope this marks the start of a lasting relationship between us and Atlantic...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Extra staff in the shop this Monday...

We're very much in the thick of the Christmas season now, and a few early 'runners' have emerged during December in terms of our Christmas bestsellers. Here's a top 10 from the past 4 weeks or so:
  1. History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil Macgregor (and that's despite not being able to get hold of copies for a while at the start of the month)
  2. I Never Knew That About the River Thames by Christopher Winn (we're on the river here!)
  3. Help by Kathryn Stock (several local bookgroups have been reading this I believe)
  4. F in Exams by Richard Benson (the big stocking-filler hit of the year for us, and easily the book causing the most laughter from casual browsers...)
  5. Golden Acorn by Catherine Cooper (by dint of having done an event with her a few weeks ago)
  6. One Day - David Nicholls (mmm, can't imagine why that's there...)
  7. Four Tales - Philip Pullman (a gorgeous collection of four of his 'fairy tales' and a very Christmassy-looking book to boot)
  8. Do Nothing, Christmas is Coming - Stephen Cottrell (the third year running this has featured in our top ten!)
  9. Top Gear - the alternative highway code (I'm slightly ashamed to say)
  10. Steve Backshall's Deadly 60 (cometh the hour, cometh the 'wild' man...we waited almost two months for these to come in, and we're expecting big things of this title over the next couple of weeks...)
An interesting list, as always. Now, a bit further down (at about #17) is Anne Holt's 1222, one of our big crime recommends this Christmas. Published on Dec 1st, it promises to introduce Norway's biggest female crime writer - already huge in other European countries - to a wider UK audience.

But more interestingly, it's a title published by Atlantic Books, and - courtesy of a fantastic initiative from members of the Faber Alliance - we have Atlantic Books CEO Toby Mundy working in the shop tomorrow (Monday Dec 13) from lunchtime onwards, assisting customers as a Mostly Books staff member. It's going to be a great opportunity to come and get some (additional) expert advice from a hugely respected figure in the publishing world, so if you are in Abingdon tomorrow afternoon, do stop by.

Toby will be staying on in the evening to talk about his experience in publishing, and the books they publish. Officially, we are now full for that event, but there is a waiting list and we will try to squeeze you in. Tickets are £3, and include suitably festive refreshments into the bargain...more details here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Last Dragons, Rare Species and Priceless Objects: The Last BBC Oxford Bookclub

All good things must come to an end, and I am very sad to be giving up my monthly bookclub appearance on BBC Radio Oxford, which I have really enjoyed doing over the past year. However, the bookclub itself is in safe hands, as Patrick Neale of the wonderful Jaffe and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton will be taking over later this month.

For the last show, I managed to pursuade Jo to pose for a shot inside the studio - she's holding a copy the marvellous Coconut Unlimited, one of the shortlisted Costa first novels:
Here are the six books we discussed on the show - which, as always, can be listened to on iPlayer for a week or so (fast forward 1hr 8minutes):

A History of the World in 100 Objects - Neil MacGregor (HB, Penguin, £30)
This is one of those books destined to become a household treasure, such is the thought, effort and care that has gone into this stunning book.
Following exactly the tone and style of the radio series, Neil MacGregor has put together this book of the objects from the British Museum that shows - in his opinion - the objects that best demonstrate how humans have shaped the world since the dawn of humans on Earth. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want Santa to bring them a copy!

1222 - Anne Holt  (HB, Corvis, £12.99)
1222 metres above sea level, a train careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force. Passengers know they will be trapped for days. They decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel, but as dawn breaks one of them is found dead. With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen investigates and tensions rise.
Anne Holt is huge in Scandinavia, Germany - and this book is set to make her a big name here. It's a taut mystery - with a subtle political message and a mischievous twist at the end.

Fifty - 50 years 50 species (HB, £17.95)Fifty of the most interesting wildlife species to be found throughout Berks, Bucks and Oxon are captured in photographs and text in this beautiful new book, which also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the local wildlife trust. With stunning and imaginative photographs, what better way to support your local trust, but also get to know the precious local wildlife in your area?

The Last Dragonslayer - Jasper Fforde  (HB, Hodder, £12)This is Jasper Fforde's first children's book, a wonderful creation of a magical world where magic is disappearing! Once magic was powerful, unregulated: sorceror's advised kings and brought down kingdoms. But after centuries of creeping regulation and restrictions, magicians work as plumbers and even magic carpets deliver pizza. Jennifer Strange is a 15-year-old acting as manager for an employment agency finding odd jobs for sorcerers and soothsayers, but everything changes when the death of the Last Dragon is predicted...a great morality tale, and just the merest hint of satire on our health and safety-obsessed world...

Four Tales - Phillip Pullman - £14.99 (HB, Doubleday, £14.99)
A beautiful collection of modern fairy tales, delightfully illustrated throughout. Bringing together for the first time four of Pullman's earlier classic stories - The Scarecrow and his Servant, Clockwork, I was a Rat! and The Firework Maker's Daughter. They are perfect examples of Pullman's unique imaginative talent and will delight and amuse readers of all ages. An absolute gem of a book, perfect for a cold winter's night!

The Iron Man - Ted Hughes  (HB, Faber / Walker, £15)An impressive and striking new edition of Ted Hughes' popular children's classic The Iron Man. Part modern fairy tale and part science fiction myth about the unexpected arrival in England of a mysterious metal giant.
Accompanying the text are stunning visual images. These dramatic and exciting illustrations lend themselves perfectly to the story. A stunning gift edition, perfect for Christmas.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Costa First Novel award: the books that nearly made it

At the beginning of November I travelled to London for an intense - and at times gruelling - six-hour meeting to decide the shortlist (and winner) of this year's Costa First Novel award. Having already whittled the original long-list of 94 submitted novels down to just twelve, we then proceeded - over the course of the day - to fine-tune this selection down to just four, with one overall winner.

It has been quite an experience to be involved in the awards, but at the moment I feel like a marathon runner, elated at having crossed the line, but hobbling a bit (metaphorically) on sore reading feet, wondering if I would ever do it again (I secretly suspect that I would, but not perhaps for a while...).

I am extremely proud of the four books we eventually selected, but I will forever look at the shortlists from other prizes and fully appreciate just how much hard work has gone into the selection of the books!

Reading over 40 debut novels since mid-Summer has been challenging (particularly spliced between my regular bookshop reading). Many of the books I greatly enjoyed reading, several of them I definitely didn't. But I do feel slightly guilty ('judging remorse' anyone?) that in making my own shortlist, several books were close to making the cut, and missed out for reasons which now appear less obvious. I can't help wondering that if I had read the books in a different order, or at a different time during the Summer, they might have been selected instead.

I know - as a bookseller - how difficult it is as a debut writer to get off the ground. Without sounding pompous, I did feel that there was a big responsibility on you to make the right selection, simply because of what it will mean - in terms of sales, visibility, etc. - for those authors on the shortlist. It's a tough life for the newly published; rarely do book buyers come into a bookshop specifically to try out a new author. It is not uncommon for readers - particularly men - to want to try a new writer *only* if they have several books published. A friend of mine explained it thus: "I don't get much time to read. Therefore, if I'm going to invest time and effort in trying a new author, I need to know that - if I like him or her - there will be other books to read by them." That's tough to hear if you are a new author, what chance does that give you?!

Which brings me to the point of this post: to mention, in dispatches, those novels that very nearly made it into the selection, and certainly books I would recommend (with perhaps a few provisos) when choosing your next book.

Most importantly - they are all authors to watch. They are definitely worth your time and effort to try, they could all have made my personal shortlist given different circumstances. They are listed in the order I scored them during the judging process:

Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile

To me, this was my stand-out read of the entire list, and I have been championing the book in the shop, and two of my bookgroups have had the book foisted upon them. It is a stunning - and breathtaking - debut novel which takes a difficult and taboo subject (a woman embaarking on a sexual relationship with her father) but treats it with such sympathy and strong writing, you quickly push past your reservations, judging the characters on their own terms and examining your feelings. Although you know it won't end well (and it doesn't) it is still a book that lives long in the memory, and - like all great art - pushes you well out of your comfort zone to see the world in a slightly different way. Ultimately the book probably didn't make it onto the shortlist because of its subject matter - but Anne Peile's novel has made a big impact on me, and readers in the bookshop. Oh, and I loved the cover...

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph
A simple tale, elegantly told, which links together both the old and the new in India. It tells the story of Mohan, who is one of a dying breed of 'letter writer' - a once-proud profession, writing letters to order for a variety of customers, and now a victim both of modern technology and spreading literacy. Into the life of Mohan and his wife Lakshmi comes Ashish, forced to repeat his final year in college. We thus follow, slowly and compellingly, the hopes, fears and desires that exist within a very small cast of characters. It is strikingly different from many other Indian novels, and - in terms of the quality of the prose - easily the best novel I read. (Poor cover incidentally, but looks like they are remedying that on the mass market paperback).

Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller
Powerful debut set against the backdrop of the real-life shocking massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. Whilst not shying away from details of the event, I found it ultimately a life-affirming story written with a lack of polemic. Through the eyes of translator Ivan - an 18-year old Danish-Palestinian who hangs around and assists a variety of Lebanese, Palestinian and Western medical volunteers in the camps - we watch events unfold with a grim inevitability. This book ultimately shows that ordinary people with courage, even in the midst of atrocity, can plot a path to a more hopeful future. I loved this book, but the details of the massacre are very shocking.

Making Shore by Sara Allerton
This so very nearly made my final list - and perhaps it should have. It is based in part on a remarkable true story of survival at sea, and in that regard the writing is dignified yet compelling. Having survived the torpedoing of his boat during WWII, young wireless operator Cubby Clarke endures a terrible ordeal with other survivors from the boat, and even when they reach land, their ordeal is not over. But the reason for the power of this novel is its framing within a relationship between one of his shipmates and his fiancee, which packs an enormous emotional wallop and raises this far above a standard wartime survival story. The book deserves to reach a wide audience.

The Reluctant Mullah by Sagheer Afzal
This is the book David Lodge might have written if he had been a British Muslim. A cracking set of characters (my favourite being a Confuscious-spouting, foul-mouthed but endearing Muslim builder) with Musa, recently kicked out of his North-London Madrasaha, and looking for true-love, being the most compelling and sympathetic. I felt I learned a lot about British muslim life, not to mention aspects of the Koran that were surprising and accessible. A solid - and fresh - debut.

The Clay Dreaming by Ed Hillyer
This is a great novel, but its sheer length counted against it - wouldn't have been surprised to have seen it on the Booker longlist though, as it is that good. Set against the backdrop of a real (and forgotten) Australian Aboriginal cricket tour that took place in England in 1868, Victorian London comes alive in a way Dickens would've been proud. Genuinely gripping - the tour may or may not succeed financially, and the Aboriginies cannot be trusted to behave 'properly' - I really enjoyed this book, and hope it does well.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Hats off to Gollancz - a publisher I admire - for submitting a hard SF novel to the Costas. As someone who always champions SF to anyone who will listen, I wanted to select it, didn't think I could get away with it, but I loved it and I hope it wins loads of SF awards. It's a smart, fast-paced thriller set in the far-future but with loads of literary references from SF staples to Sherlock Holmes.

Quilt by Nicholas Royle

This book is bonkers. Experimental in the correct sense of the word (as opposed to the over-excited PR pumped out to accompany 'C') as first I wondered if I should even read this book (one chapter is a list of alphabetised words). But as a study of a father and son relationship, and as the dissembling of a once-sane individual, the imaginative use of language is startling, and I've never read anything even remotely like it. I don't trust my own critical faculties enough to pronounce whether this is a great book - or whether it even works - but I found it compelling and it's one of the books that has stayed with me from earlier in the Summer.

So there we go. Eight books which might have made it but didn't. It was interesting reading some of the press response to the shortlist. Boyd Tonkin was perplexed by the choice of books, and makes some good points about the chosen novels which are fair enough. The only point I would make to him is that all of us unanimously loved Neel Mukherjee's "A Life Apart" and had it not been disqualified on the ground of having been published previously under a different title, would probably have made the shortlist. I hope that makes him feel slightly better...and I'm keen to see how RobAroundBooks does on his reading through the shortlist as someone is a self-professed lover of debut novels (and they are in short supply, I can tell you...)

Finally, some interesting observations about the 'snapshot' of new writing that my reading threw up. Not many generalisations, but although "Creative Writing MA" increasingly crops up in author biographies in the shop, there was little evidence of that in the debuts. The strength of Asian writing (and issues) is notable (and The Times of India thought it worth commenting recently as well).

But to me the most striking aspect was the background of the authors. Many had already achieved a measure of success in other creative fields, such as poetry, non-fiction, screenwriting, journalism. Whether this had given them the inspiration - or the contacts - to break into the publishing field is an interesting point to debate. Either way, I think it's a healthy sign that 'living the writing life' (and spending a life writing) might be the best way to end up being a fiction author...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Death of Booksellers? Discuss.

Yesterday I had the great privilege of talking to students on the MA Publishing course at Oxford Brookes about the bookshop. My talk slotted into talks by other industry figures and so I gave my talk the rather upbeat title of “The Death of Bookselling?” (obviously the question mark is key, and I hope that by the end of the talk I had successfully argued that, whilst hard and rapidly changing, bookselling – and independent bookselling – is still very much alive and kicking).

Anyway, part of the talk was to stress that, to make a modern bookshop work, there are a large variety of different events that go on around the core retail operation, so (to any of the students visiting this page) this blog post is sort of a ‘refresher’ to the main part of the talk.

To start with, here are the students themselves who gamely posed for a photo during a talk about our experience of blogging (and the proof that I never miss a chance for something to put on the blog):

and of course their fine lecturers lurking in the corner:

It’s always a bit daunting doing this sort of thing, particularly after lunch (referred to colloquially as the ‘graveyard shift’ on the lecture/conference circuit, making my talk title doubly appropriate), but the 75 students (who I understand hail from 24 different countries) were a very attentive and engaging audience, and it was a lot of fun to prattle on about my favourite subject (Mostly Books) for nearly an hour – and answer questions afterwards.

It was an interesting week to give such a talk. Two week’s previously we had had our fun-packed, white-knuckle ride of an event with Gervase Phinn, and last Monday (by way of a bookgroup meeting or two) I had had an extremely intense meeting in London, the climax to nearly four months of a debut novel-reading marathon, being a judge for the Costa awards this year. The four-book shortlist that we decided on will be announced on Front Row next Tuesday (16th Nov), but all three of us are hoping that the list represents a diverse and engaging collection of the best new writing, and a snapshot of the state of new novels in the past year. It was a huge responsibility choosing books from the list of over 40 books that I received, knowing that selection may mean the difference between a new author 'making it' or not.

(Once the shortlist is out BTW, there are other books that deserve an honourable mention from the books that I read, and I look forward to breaking silence on these next week.

Then last Saturday, we were very honoured to be invited along to run a bookshop at the Storyteller’s Conference, at the (it has to be said, gorgeous) offices of OUP in Oxford, organised by the Oxford Children’s Book Group.

Having never been to OUP before, I was utterly charmed by the place. With its white walls, and the oasis of calm that greets you on entering the 'quad', it almost seemed like a kind of bookseller version of heaven (with the state-of-the-art security system on the front acting as a kind of eye-of-the-needle to get your camel through, or in this case, a Ford Focus, which I was using to deliver the books):

Speaking and signing copies of their books were the children's illustrators Sarah McIntyre and Layn Marlow... 
 and it was very exciting to meet one of our shop-favourites Mary Hoffman (author of the extranvaganza series, amongst many other fab books).
Philip Pullman gave a cracking talk on the elements of storytelling, and having met Philip briefly at the Larkmead Literary Festival earlier in the year, it was great to do another event with him. Random House Children's Books have produced a gorgeous bind-up of four of Philip’s tales in one book (Four Tales, naturally), which looks splendid and Christmassy – and if you are lucky we may have some signed copies in the shop for a few more days:

Sunday: day off. Monday and Tuesday was spent preparing for the return of the Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiz. We held this last year, and this year the quiz was held to raise money for the Friends of Abingdon Museum restoration appeal, and we had teams from the council, local schools, book bloggers, our own bookgroups and customers competing to be Mostly Bookbrains 2010, and a motley collection of wine, chocolates and books that we had rustled up for prizes.

The Friends of the Museum ran a bar and raffle, and the youth group acted as car park attendants and waiters for the evening. Thanks to the great support from the town, and The Friends, and not forgetting the brilliant efforts of quiz-meister Annabel, we believe we have raised over £600 towards the appeal.

And finally today I had the opportunity to travel to Foyles in London, for a meeting as part of the build-up for a very exciting country-wide book event next March (more on that in the next few weeks). Suffice to say that I did spend a few minutes walking around this iconic and wonderful bookstore, breathing in great gulp-fulls of rarefied bookselling air in what is a magical building for books…

The trick with all of this activity is not to detract from the running of the bookshop. So, my final question to the students on the course. Is bookselling dead? Discuss...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fluorescent jelly, vengeful angels and a new world history: BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub October 2010

Sadly, we're well into Christmas present territory now, but I was really pleased with the selection of books on today's show. Click to listen on iPlayer, then forward to about 1 hour 11 minutes into the show.

Here are the books reviewed:

Who’s Hiding – Satoru Onishi (Gecko Press, PB, £5.99)This is a simple idea ingeniously delivered. On every page an assortment of different animals, of different colours, appear – but with the judicious use of colour, the question is “Who’s Hiding?”. Other subtle (and increasingly complex) changes happen as the book progresses. And pre-schoolers absolutely love it. Great for an older sibling to read to a younger one too...

Angel – LA Weatherly (Usborne, PB, £7.99)This is the first in a brilliant new series of books – published by Usborne, who have moved into the young adult fiction market for the first time. It’s a superbly conceived world in which people see angels – but they are most definitely *not* what they seem. As the book progresses we follow Willow, a young girl who seems to have special powers, and a boy named Alex (an angel-hunter) who initially wants to harm Willow, but eventually is forced to join her as they face a threat which has huge ramifications for the entire world. A stunning book and a natural successor to the ‘Twilight’ world. Angels are the new vampires!

Mirrors – Eduardo Galeano (Portobello Books, PB, £9.99)This is one of the most addictive books I’ve read in a long time, so be warned if you think you’ll just have a few minutes to ‘dip in’ (particularly at night, and I speak from experience) as you may be some time. At its simplest, ‘Mirrors’ is a history of the world written in a thousand short ‘pieces’, in the form of an anecdote, event, biography or some other interesting story which makes this book one that can be dipped into at almost any point. But when read together, they form a genuinely original history of the world, often with key moments told from very different vantage points – and with connections and themes strung together. By the end of the book your view of the world – and the human experience – is subtly, but radically transformed.

The Extraordinary Cookbook: Make Meals Your Friends Will Never Forget – Stefan Gates (Kyle Cathie, HB, £19.99)Cookbooks are a staple of the Christmas publishing 'fayre' (no pun intended), but this year, forget Nigella, Jamie and Hugh, and instead plump for this, one of the most unusual and, yes, extraordinary cookbooks to have been published in recent years. Stefan Gates is best known for presenting Gastronuts, and he has brought out books in the past on eating unusual food. But here, he collects together 'real' recipes for you to cook extraordinary meals for friends which will "flatter their intelligence and feed their appetite for adventure". From flourescent jellies and roasted fish heads, to inviting your friends to make sushi and roasting fish heads, this is a cook book like no other...

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will - Judith Schalansky (HB, Penguin Books, £25.00)This is one of those wonderful books that is beautifully conceived and executed, making both a lovely gift and genuinely useful in terms of a reference book. The collected stories which serve to illustrate each island are by turns funny, gripping...but often poignant, rooted as many of them are in the history of discovery and colonisation. One of my big Christmas recommends this year for difficult-to-buy-for men, particularly those with an interest in maps! But it will appeal to a far wider readership than that...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Mighty Phinn

Four years ago (October 2006) we hosted our first ever author event at Mostly Books. Upon setting up the event, our initial joy in celebrating the fact that we had convinced an author to come to the shop was soon tempered by the realisation that no-one had ever heard of the author, and thus the tickets weren't exactly flying out of the door...

A few days before the event, and desperate to round up an audience, I accosted one lady in the shop, gave her one of my best 100 watt bookseller smiles, and endeavoured to lure her to buy a ticket. She declined, but said "You know who you should get for an event? That Gervase Phinn. He'd be fab."

"I'll see what I can do" I said.

And so (because these things can take some time to pull off) four years later we welcomed the legend himself to the Guildhall in Abingdon. And what a night it was...
Gervase's own website declares that "you can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can't tell him much" and it was clear from the outset that there was only one man calling the shots in terms of how the evening was going to be run.
As befits someone who has a reputation as one of the country's best raconteurs and after-dinner speakers, Gervase had the audience in the palm of his hands, with stories, anedoctes, observations and poems on everything from the use of language and modern life, to his passion for education and family life. It was a virtuoso performance.
Having decided to do an impromptu signing before the event, he then continued to sign and chat afterwards as well.
He seemed very happy with the whole event - particularly the response from the audience. So a big thank you for everyone who came - we hope you had a great evening.
Rumour has it that Gervase's next project is his first fiction novel, and when it gets published I will do my best to lure him back to Abingdon for a repeat performance. And hopefully it won't be another four years...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Battleground Prussia

On Wednesday night, we held a joint event between Mostly Books and The Abingdon and District Twinning Society. We had been talking for over a year about a possible event, and in the end we were delighted to welcome a local author - Dr Prit Buttar - author of a remarkable new history covering the end of the second world war on the Eastern Front - Battleground Prussia.

There are local authors - and then there is Dr Buttar who works just over the road here in Stert Street!

The Society itself was very quick to write up the event. From our side it was a big success, and Dr Buttar gave a accomplished, compelling and at times harrowing talk, illuminating a part of the war which is often neglected here in the West (at least, as published in the English-language). And although I don't often do this (and it pains me slightly to include the link!) reviewers on A*maz*n who know much more about this part of history than I do are lauding its publication - and we hope the book does well. Naturally we have signed copies here in the shop...

Thanks to Dr Buttar - and also to the Society in what we hope will become a regular event...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Children's Book Week: Holly Webb and the Oxfordshire Book Award

On Wednesday during Children's Book Week we welcomed "Rose" author Holly Webb.

She started off at Cholsey Primary School, talking to the girls there about her life as first an editor, and then author. Along the way she revealed some of her favourite books (such as 'The Little Princess', and possibly her favourite book, CS Lewis' 'The Horse and His Boy'), and telling the children to read, read, read if they wanted to be writers.
She had even brought along the manuscript of the fourth 'Rose' book to show the children and tell them what it's like to be an editor (which Holly used to be) and an author (which is what she is now).

And then Holly read examples of the children's writing in a very interactive session. Several of the girls had written pieces inspired by books they had read about the blitz (in fact, there was a fantastic display of writing up based on both Michael Morpurgo's Friend or Foe, and Henry Moore's Shelter Drawings). Holly was able to join in as the class advised on aspects of the writing that worked well - or could have been improved. Kudos to Holly - and also to the girls who allowed their work to be scrutinised by the class.

And then Holly signed copies of her books:

We then hightailed it across the countryside to Abingdon, where we spent a wonderful afternoon with children from Rush Common School. Some great questions from the children (there seemed to be an awful lot of budding writers at the school!):
Holly then came back to the shop before catching the train home...

The following day we were at Abingdon School for the annual Oxfordshire Book Award. We did this last year - and it is a wonderful celebration of the best children's writing, with some fantastic authors turning up to receive their awards - voted on by children in schools across Oxfordshire...
This year, authors included Michael Morpurgo, Rachel Ward, Marie-Louise Jensen, Nick Sharrat and Jill Arbuthnott.
It was an intense affair, with lots of children all wanting to meet the authors, but I did manage to slip out from behind the bookstall and meet the authors, including the great man himself (not that I'm a fan or anything...let's hope I didn't come over *too* starry-eyed...)
It was a great Children's Book Week for us, (we ended the week tired but happy). The best thing about school events is when the children come into the shop to tell you how much they enjoyed meeting the authors...and fired up to read more of their books.

Next up for us...Gervase Phinn on Oct 25, and then the return of the Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiz for charity...

Friday, October 08, 2010

Stripey Tiger Super Tour at Carswell School

National Children's Book Week this week and - fools that we are - we were involved in five seperate events in and around Abingdon. All fantastic - and we kicked off Tuesday with the brilliant David Roberts and Guy Bass, part of Little Tiger Press' Stripey Tiger Super Tour, who arrived at Carswell School Abingdon in some style:
An ordinary VW Sharan magically transformed into the Tigermobile. We planned their arrival for when the children were in the playground, and - health and safety cones suitable arranged - the Tigermobile arrived bearing the two authors. They were met by teacher Debbie Emsen, and members of the school council:
Who then posed for the camera:
Guy and David then addressed a specially-convened school assembly to give a hint of the mayhem that was to follow:
The school split up - years 1,2 and 3 stayed in the hall with David, years 4,5 and 6 headed off down to the Dining Hall. David began by giving a reading of "Dirty Bertie" with some help from the kids.
Did they enjoy this? The following short, but informative film, may give you a hint:

Meanwhile, over at the Dining Room, Guy was talking about his book "Secret Santa: Agent of X.M.A.S. (short for 'Xtremely Mysterious Agency of Secrets', just in case you are not inducted yet):
Here Guy talks with the children about Christmas presents - in particular, ones that they might have received which were 'pants'...
He then read some extracts from the book...
Back to the main hall, and David was attempting to give 90 children a masterclass in drawing Bertie and his dog Whiffer. Armed with pens and paper, the children were enthralled and totally mesmerised. 
Meanwhile, Guy split his group into two teams, with two potential new X.M.A.S recruits. Kitted out in top-of-the-range 'elf' agent costumes and ray guns, the two groups raced to decipher a code to reveal one of Santa's most deadliest enemies...
...The Easter Bunny! Reunited after the main event, Guy and David signed books for the children, and posed with the suitably awed bookseller.
The feedback from the school has been fantastic, and it was a great start to the week for us. David, Guy and 'Laceytiger' Lauren jumped into the Tigermobile, and after managing to navigate the torturous Abingdon traffic system (largely closed off for the Michaelmas Fair), the sped off down the A34 en route to Wales for the next leg...

Monday, October 04, 2010

The case for the book

I've just finished listening to a fantastic 'start the week' on Radio 4, which featured (amongst other guests) a discussion with Jonathan Franzen. In it there is the most wonderfully succinct yet powerful argument for the book I've heard (it's near the end of the show - Frantzen was held up by the tube strike). Marr and Frantzen are actually referring to the 'case for the novel', but the idea of reading as a haven against the 'thousand tiny distractions' of everyday life is a powerful one.

I've often felt that books provide time and space, within which we can think, learn, etc. It also chimes nicely with some of the thinking behind the 'slow food' and 'slow travel' movement (and incidentally "time to read" makes a nice counterpoint to the - let's face it - awful 'bookaholicism' initiative that surfaced last year within the wider book trade).

And I think reading off of an electronic device doesn't count. You use a different part of your brain to read from a device, and (as someone who endeavoured to carry a conversation with a young woman last week who wouldn't - or couldn't - leave her mobile phone alone that whole time we talked) whichever eReader triumphs in the upcoming 'format war' will include plenty of bells, whistles, linking, ebedded push-technology and other ad-based interruptions to constantly draw your attention away from any long-term concentration and deep thought. Rather than kill the book, I think this kind of tech-driven attention deficit disorder may drive more people back to paper, as a sort of "leave-me-alone-I'm-reading" response to the 'Always-on-Friends-Reunited' that is Facebook.

I suppose this is why I'm fairly sanguine about the much-debated 'demise' of the book - I don't think the paper-based book is disappearing anytime soon, and we shouldn't let ourselves get too carried away by a technology very much coming off of the top of the Gartner hype curve. It's a great example of appropriate technology, although that doesn't mean it couldn't do with a bit of a helping hand now and then...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rampaging Elephants, Magical Masks and a Dodo: it's the BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub for September

September's Afternoon Bookclub is now online on the BBC iPlayer - here's the link. You'll need to fast-forward to about 1 hour 7 minutes to listen to my over-caffeinated ramblings - but here's what Jo and I reviewed on today's show:

"A Dodo at Oxford" - Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson (Oxgarth Press, HB, £12.99)

Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson have produced that rare thing - a genuinely original book, and one with its heart and soul firmly in Oxford. Based on a supposed 17th century diary 'discovered' in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, the authors - unsure of its provenance and authenticity - have decided to reproduce it in facimile form - with annotations to let the reader decide. Along the way, apart from learning about what may have been the last Dodo to have lived, we discover all kinds of historical facts, Oxford folklore, etymologies of words - and even popular culture references from 'items' found in the book by previous owners. An early Christmas gift - and one slightly more cerebral than the usual Christmas fodder! More about the book can be found here.

"Our Kind of Traitor" - John Le Carré (HB, Penguin, £18.99)

When a young Oxford academic and his barrister girlfriend by chance meet a Russian millionaire in Antigua, it's the start of a nightmarish yet gripping adventure which couldn't be more relevant to the way we live now. Involving Russian organised crime, the murky London bankers (and the book poses the question: "are there any other kind?"), and various national intelligence services (notably the British), this is a bang up-to-date literate thriller from an author who - amazingly, given his status as one of our finest thriller writers for over *five decades* - continues to write at the top of his game. This is an author who refuses to rest on his laurels or go quietly into the night, yet his tone is never angry, it is an abject lesson in how 'power' operates; the players may change subtly, the games are often the same. Le Carré is a true legend - and this is a legend worthy of his status.

"Rose and The Magician's Mask" - Holly Webb (Orchard Books, PB, £5.99)

This is the third in the series of Holly Webb's Rose books, which belie their sparkly, very girly cover design to tell a dark tale of fantasy, magic and some seriously twisted villains. In previous books Rose (an orphan) was taken in to work as a servant by Mr Fountain, the chief magical advisor to the King. Having saved a lost much-loved princess in book two, she now has to travel to Venice to prevent a catastrophe, following the theft of a powerful magical mask. Cue lots of sightseeing and masked balls in the magically-evoked Italian city. Perfect reading for girls who want exciting, well-written books that the boys definitely won't want to read!

(You can also come and meet Holly Webb at Mostly Books on Oct 6th as part of National Children's Book Week)

Running Wild - Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins, PB, £6.99)

Like John Le Carré, Michael Morpurgo is an author who seems to get better with age. Already well-loved by children the world over, this book won the Oxfordshire Book Award for Primary School category - a book voted for by children in schools across Oxfordshire. The book starts in the company of Will and his Mum, on holiday in Indonesia and recovering after the death of Will's father. But this is Boxing Day 2004, and when the elephant Will is riding along the beach suddenly goes crazy and crashes off into the undergrowth, it's not just Will's world that is about to turn upside down...

How To Store Your Home Grown Produce - John & Val Harrison (Right Way Publications, PB, £6.99)

Apparently this Autumn we are looking at a bumper harvest - so what do you do when you've got a glut of plums, courgettes or other fruits and vegetables all ripening at once? Why not get yourself a copy of "How To Store Your Home-grown Produce" and learn about harvesting, storing and preserving your bumper crop through the Winter. This is a handy, competitively-priced handbook that will show you how to make chutneys and jams, and how to bottle, dry, freeze or simply store what you grow to feel you and family in the cold months ahead...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I love doing school events. They are often maddeningly complicated to set up, and there are often lots of 'variables' in terms of planning, on which the eventual success of an event hangs. But just occasionally, everything - the school, the author, the kids - just fall into place and you run an event of which everyone is justly proud.

Well, that's what happened on Monday when children's author, performer and scriptwriter Ciaran Murtagh spent a day at Thomas Reade Primary School in Abingdon. Ciaran writes the 'Dinopants' series of books, which we are big fans of in the shop. He also writes for some heavyweight CBBC shows such as 'The Slammer' and 'The Legend of Dick and Dom', so the children were pretty excited about him coming to the school. They had done a lot of preparation for his arrival - not least making a range of 'Dinopants', the best of which were strung on a makeshift washing line in the main entrance:

The school could not have been more supportive of the visit, even going to the lengths of arranging dinosaur-shaped snacks for the author's lunch:

How cool is that?!

Ciaran was introduced to the school in assembly, and then proceeded to run workshops with pretty much every year group in the school throughout the day, starting with reception:

Then years 3 and 4...

years 5 and 6...

and finally years 1 and 2. The workshops consisted of storytelling sessions where the kids decided what actually happened in the stories at key points. The chocolate monster story in the last workshop was particularly impressive...

Ciaran then signed books for everyone - including copies of the latest in the series "Dinoball", not yet released, and hot from the back of the author's car.

Here's one lucky boy clasping his copy of Dinoball, and who had eagerly been awaiting the release of the fourth books (having read the first three at bedtime over the past year - I told you they were big favourites in the Thornton household...) 

Thanks to Ciaran, who worked like a trojan, and whose hand must have seized up by the end of day after numerous impromptu sketches of dinosaurs, pants and, well, yes, dinosaur poo. Thomas Reade School deserve a huge thank you, as do teachers Julie and Kirsty for setting the whole thing up. Not least to the children, who got fully into the spirit of the day and made the stories come alive.

Ciaran will actually be in "The Slammer" this Friday (juggling porridge apparently). I'll try to put a link here once it's up in iPlayer!