Saturday, January 30, 2010

Spies, Lies and A Birthday Surprise: The BBC Oxford Bookclub in January

I did the Jo Thoenes radio show on Wednesday - another enjoyable afternoon spot, and another five books to recommend after feverish reading over the past few weeks. I reckon I'm reading more books now than I have ever done before in my life... For those interested, you can listen to my stint on BBC iPlayer (this will expire after Tuesday Feb 2nd BTW). You'll need to forward to 1 hour 8 minutes (or start at the 1 hour mark, if you want to hear Phil Collins singing Invisible Touch) and then I discuss the following books:
  • Operation Mincemeat is the gripping, incredible, barely credible yet true story of Major Martin and possibly the most successful deception of WWII. By floating a corpse loaded with falsified documents, the British Secret Service hoped to throw the axis powers off the scent of the planned invasion of Sicily, but the sheer effort that went into its planning and execution almost defies belief. Based on original research, newly discovered documents, and at times reading like a wartime thriller, the book works on many levels. The main reason I enjoyed it was the case of characters - such as the ├╝ber-British Gomez-Heare, the unlikely Agent 'Garbo' - and a highly placed nazi intelligence officer who deserves to be more widely known for the crucial role he played in ensuring the nazi high command believed the deception. (BTW, if you would like to hear Ben talk about the book, currently riding high in the bestseller chart, we have him coming to Abingdon for an event on February 11th)."
  • Hardball by Sara Paretsky is the latest VI Warshawski tale from the legendary US crime writer. I must admit, I didn't know too much about 'Vic' Warshawski before this book, but I am definitely a fan after finishing this one in the wee small hours. Not sure whether it's because books I've read recently tended to have been fairly slow-moving, and very descriptive, but with Hardball, there is hardly a spare word or ounce of flesh on it, it moves along so quickly. Paretsky's own experiences suffuce this book - from her early days as a community organiser in Chicago during the race riots of the 1960s, to her work with groups representing the disadvantaged and poor in Chicago today (in which she worked with the then Illinois Senator, Barack Obama). Hardball starts with 'Vic' investigating a missing person's case from the turbulent 60s, and what initially looks like a hopeless 'cold' case suddenly ignites. There is a wonderful cast of gang members, corrupt policemen, sleazeball judges, even sleazier politicos, and a mobile-phoned obsessed younger cousin. By the end of the book several of these characters it seems are trying to shut Vic up by an increasing array of nasty (and violent) methods. Warshawski is a wonderful character, and as a bloke reading it you do feel like jumping in to protect her from the nasty people trying to bump her off - not that she would a) accept your help, and b) she doesn't need it anyway. There's a great paragraph in the book for British crime fans (I'll let you discover that) and there is a lovely - and poignant - last sentence, and it's nothing less than Vic deserves after everything she's been through... I'm looking forward to quizzing Sara about the book and the character when she comes to Abingdon on February 19th, click here if you fancy coming along to what I promise will be a fantastic evening...
  • The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge is not a new book - but has been recently reissued. It's sometimes cited as Bainbridge's finest and most accessible work (although a poll of our customers suggested According To Queenie instead). This is a first-person account of Scott's doomed trip to the south pole. It ends with Captain 'Titus' Oates uttering his immortal lines about going out 'for some time' and I read this over the recent snowy weather, which did help to get it into context. Everyone knows the story of Scott - or thinks they do - but this shines a welcome light (albeit a fictionalised one) onto the impossible situation Scott was in given the pressures, knowledge and incredibly bad luck he suffered in the two years it took to make the expedition. 2012 will mark 100 years since this archetypal heroic british failure, and it's well worth the effort.
  • "Troubadour" by Oxfordshire's Mary Hoffman was recently shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Children's Book Award, and although we know Mary better for her Stravaganza time-travelling renaissance adventure/romance series for kids author, this is a gripping, rip-roaring romantic adventure - albeit one set against the incredibly bloody and brutal suppression of the Cathar religion in southern France in the 13th century. Strong female characters (at a time when, briefly, women of a certain class almost enjoyed the same rights as men in terms of property) make this a great book for 9 year olds and above - although with a warning that Mary does not hold back at times on just how brutal the Pope's crusade against the Cathars actually was.
  • Finally, one of our 'books of the decade' in the shop, I talked briefly about "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. With everyone busy on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, it is well worth re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's ground-breaking book (originally published in 2000) that tells how social networks operate, and when they achieve 'the tipping point' in terms of an idea whose time has come.
Next show will be on February 24th - so I'd better get looking around and reading my next selection...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bookshop Intelligence

Tens of thousands of books published each month, and we have room for about, ooh, 60 new ones - so how do we pick? In the good old days (or bad old days, if you're looking at these things from a financial point of view), we tended to sit down once a month, look through the new Gardners catalogue and try to spot those titles that we thought would go down well in the shop. We ordered them in, they sat there for a bit, and then - in the days before many customers - many of them went back (particularly hardbacks) as part of our returns allowance.

As time went on, and we got to know our customers a bit better (and there were more of them), we became a bit more adept at spotting books that people would buy (luckily for us). But from day one we did something else: we began to talk to people about books, asking questions when taking orders (especially if the title looked intriguing, or where the author was unknown to us). At the same time, we started running our bookgroups, meeting with reps, getting hold of proof copies, having authors meet us in person - and we started to follow literary bloggers and review sites. In short, we were building our bookshop intelligence network. We're still building it, and although it's not perfect (no network is), and even though it is constantly changing, it does occasionally give us an early warning system when a special book materialises onto the scene. 

This happened in the Autumn last year, when a customer came in (thanks Vicky!) and ordered a copy of a book by a new local author. When it arrived, it looked gorgeous, and one of our staff members ordered another, then whisked it home, then whisked it back to the shop a few days later begging everyone to read it. Eventually we loved it so much we made it one of our Christmas books. We also got in touch with the author, and so the first event in 2010 was welcoming Ali Shaw to the shop to talk about "The Girl With Glass Feet". Since our original 'discovery', the book has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and has received rave reviews from lots of different quarters. It's also not doing badly in the US, and (as of last night) was the fourth most wished-for book on the IndieBound Wishlist. How lucky are we that Ali lives in Oxford and can get to us on a short bus ride?

Ali talked about his experiences to date with writing, his many jobs (including working at Queens Park Books and The Bodleian) and the 'tricky second album' situation he currently faces (although he did promise to get the first draft finished the following week). As always, Gaskella has written a wonderful review of the evening here.  
It's always exciting to discover a new author, and we've picked 'Girl With Glass Feet' as the first book for our newly revamped and relaunched Wednesday evening bookgroup next week. Our thanks to Ali for coming down to Abingdon, to him and everyone who packed in to make it such a great evening. Sticking on the 'intelligence' theme, we're looking forward to an event with Ben Macintyre on February 11th (discussing his latest book Operation Mincemeat) and then on Friday, February 19th we're very excited to have the legendary Sara Paretsky coming to Abingdon to talk about her latest book 'Hardball'. I've just finished reading both for the BBC Oxford Afternoon Book Club, and my thoughts on both these cracking books will feature on here shortly...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2010 Reloaded

Tomorrow has the feel of a 2010 'relaunch', as if it's the beginning of the year all over again, and the past two weeks haven't really counted (what with one thing and another). Thanks to some staff heroics, tromping through the snow and slush, working in five layers of clothing, having to mop the floor several times a day, etc., the shop has been open every day since the start of the year, and although it's fair to say that some of the those days have been a tad quiet, it has meant we've been able to rush around setting up events left, right and centre for the first few months of the year. If you fancy seeing some of the mouthwatering treats we've got lined up for early 2010, take a look at our events page - or read the latest edition of our newsletter which went out at the end of last week. Tomorrow we're all terrifically excited about welcoming Ali Shaw - ex-bookseller, ex-Bodleian librarian, but more importantly author of The Girl With Glass Feet - to Mostly Books, and getting to know someone we feel is a major new British writing talent. Last week The Bookseller described Ali's book as 'The sort of book that awakens people to the wonder of reading'. Couldn't agree more. A few tickets are still available at £3 each - if you fancy an evening out Monday night (January 18th at 7.30pm) let us know you are coming, and we'll have a glass of wine ready for you. It's down the back of the stock room, so consequently won't need chilling...