Saturday, March 20, 2010

Everything you ever wanted to know about quilting...

Next weekend there is a major quilting exhibition at Radley College, and as part of this the author Linda Seward will be talking at the exhibition on the Saturday at 2pm. So this is how our window is looking at the moment:
It looks even better close up. You can win this quilt, and we are selling raffle tickets in the shop. I can also guarantee that - ahead of the exhibition - we have the finest range of quilting books in Oxfordshire currently in the shop...honestly. We also have a return visit by Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading (that's reading-rhymes-with-heading, rathering that 'reading-rhymes-with-needing' as several people have pointed out this week) on Tuesday 30th March at 6pm. I'm sure there's a link between these two events, but I just can't work it out...

Friday, March 12, 2010

In Search of the Multiverse: John Gribbin in Abingdon

We had a suitably mind-expanding evening with John Gribbin at Abbey Hall on Thursday, with an exhilarating ride to the frontiers of scientific theory: the concept of The Multiverse.
John Gribbin is one of our most celebrated and respected popular science writers. Books like In Search of Schrödinger's Cat have had a huge impact on raising the profile and general level of understanding of some of the more bizarre aspects of the weird worlds that physicists and mathematicians now inhabit. It has also inspired plenty of people to get involved in physics. So when we got the opportunity (courtesy of one of our customers) to approach John for an event, we jumped at the chance.

As expected, he proved a popular choice. But the concept of the multiverse - and the implications for life in this universe - is one of the most challenging areas to get your head around. There are different interpretations and plenty of theories, some of which demand huge leaps of imagination into parallel universes and multiple dimensions. But on the evening, John acted as an extremely genial guide through the subject.

Starting with basic concepts of quantum theory (the duality of matter as both particle and wave, and the double-slit experiment) we went from the 'Many World's Interpretation' of quantum physics, through branching universes, black holes and time travel to quantum fluctuations yielding big bangs, bouncing sheet universes and M-theory. It was quite a ride.

John took questions at the end - which revealed a very well-informed audience with some suitably challenging - and at times I must admit baffling - questions. But I guess that's what you would expect given Abingdon's position equidistant between Oxford, Harwell (home of research facilities such as the Diamond Synchrotron) and Culham (home of European Fusion Research).

There were attempts to draw John into discussions on consciousness, the arrow of time, the limits to knowledge and intelligent designers. He stuck doggedly to the matter in hand, and it was a shame to draw the evening to a close. Afterwards John - and his wife Mary with whom he has co-authored many of his books - stayed to sign books, and continue to talk physics alongside the bookstall. A big thank you to John and Mary for making the journey up to Abingdon, and giving an extremely stimulating talk as part of both the Abingdon Arts Festival and the Oxfordshire Science Festival. It's a testament to John's abilities as both scientist and wordsmith that he so effectively bridges the 'two cultures' - and why he is such an effective communicator of ideas.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Roma Tearne at Mostly Books

Last night we welcomed Mosquito and Brixton Beach author Roma Tearne to Mostly Books. Roma was utterly delightful, even more so given the daunting task of meeting members of our Wednesday evening bookgroup who had all read Brixton Beach. The group met earlier, chatted about the book, and then Roma arrived about half an hour into the discussion. As those of you who know the shop well, when there is an event on in there there isn't much room to swing a paperback, so Roma had to push her way to the front and begin to answer questions immediately. Very intimidating - but Roma was well up to the challenge. What followed was a fabulous discussion, where we were able to really get under the skin of Roma's writing, the themes of her book, how autobiographical it is - and her experiences of writing, and how it compares to her work as an artist. It was all over far too quickly, and I personally could have talked to Roma half the night about some of the 'loops' opened during the discussion, but Roma stayed behind after the meeting formally ended and chatted with everyone - a really great evening. Roma is such a beguiling speaker, and she has insights into the writing process that (IMHO) make her a must-see for anyone writing. At the end of April Roma will be the Writer In Residence at Blackwells bookshop in Oxford for the week. It sounds a fascinating exercise in bringing a writer and readers together, so have a look at her residency page (link above) on Blackwell's website for more details...

Friday, March 05, 2010

World Book Day with Chris Bradford

Two years ago, we did a fantastic event at Larkmead School involving Young Samurai author Chris Bradford as he launched book one in the series: Way of the Warrior. We - and the school - we so impressed, that we quickly approached Chris to take part in our Amazing Books for Boys event last year - culminating in an incredible show to coincide with the launch of book two: Way of the Sword. So when we were approached a few weeks ago to come along and help run an official World Book Day event with Chris, we jumped at the chance. And so on Thursday, Chris performed in front of almost 400 kids from various schools in Abingdon to celebrate both his World Book Day flipbook The Way of Fire, and book three in the Young Samurai series The Way of the Sword. Anyone who has seen Chris perform before knows his electrifying mix of live martial arts, scene-reenactment, sword display and audience participation. This time was no different. Afterwards, Chris signed books and posters and met fans - new and old - after two separate performances. There was an impromptu live performance on stage of a school battle in book three (which fingers crossed I have on video) and we had prepared for the day with hundreds of WBD flip books which looked impressive on the display racks: The event was organised through the Federation of Children's Bookgroups - and we very much appreciated the opportunity to take part. 2010 is the year of Young Samurai - as well as World Book Day, book four comes out in August, with another two already planned, a film in development, and another story appearing as part of Penguin's Pocket Money Reads. We have signed copies of book three in the shop - and for a limited time only, if you buy a copy you'll receive a signed Way of the Dragon book as well...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Can't Read, Won't Read

We are currently in a five-day, five-event stint - with another two events next week (i.e. this post will be short). Yesterday (Tuesday), we provided the books for an event with the former Tory MP Lord Hurd (better known - to me anyway - as Douglas Hurd) and in lieu of a proper write-up of a very entertaining evening, I'll point you to the Abingdon Blog.

However, on Monday night we ran a very special event indeed, and we are still reeling somewhat from a) the response in terms of the number of people who attended, and b) the feedback on the night. It may sound trite - or false, or something cooked up by someone firmly focused on a PR angle - but I'll say it anyway. A very experienced bookseller told me once that selling books is a privilege rather than a job, and occasionally something happens that proves this adage in spades. Monday night was a classic example, and I feel very privileged to have been involved.

Can't Read, Won't Read was jointly organised between Larkmead School, ourselves, publisher Barrington Stoke and their distributor Bounce. Barrington Stoke arranged for two of their authors to come along (Nigel Hinton and Joanna Kenrick), as well as a lady well-known in the field of reading, learning and literacy: Patience Thomson. We billed the event as an opportunity for parents and teachers with children who have reading difficulties (call them 'reluctant readers', or 'struggling readers') to pick up hints and tips in terms of understanding the problems they face, and helping them to develop a love of reading.

Given the range of problems that children can face when reading - and as I have been discovering, there can be a huge number of roadblocks to reading fluency - this was a big promise to deliver on. Given we had never tried the format before as well, there were all kinds of risks in terms of expectations.

We had hoped that we might get close to 50 people attending. Thanks to an incredible and generous response from parents and teachers to an email I had sent the week before, we had 93 - and we almost ran out of seats. More seriously, we almost ran out of wine glasses (which, IMHO, constitutes an events 'crisis').

We didn't take many photos on the evening - but here's Nigel speaking on the night to get an idea of the audience, and also the woderful space that is Larkmead's Learning Resource Centre: With the help of some willing volunteers from the English department, we grabbed more seats from nearby classrooms, but the larger-than-expected audence meant that (with the marvellous benefit of hindsight) we perhaps should have thought about a microphone. Apologies to anyone struggling to hear near the back - although each of the speakers seemed to have no problems making themselves heard - or understood.

Each of the speakers picked a particular viewpoint to focus on in terms on tackling the problems of children reading. Patience talked about the ability to cope with language, and the problems that can arise for children who cannot process language in an efficient way, which leads to issues of confidence and ability which can impact on all areas of social interaction. This informed her own beliefs in the way she set up Barrington Stoke.

Nigel focused on the power of stories, and the problems and perceptions of what are great books, how the types of books that get talked about and win awards are books that are only really enjoyed by a small fraction of society - but pass the majority by. He talked about the fact that written literature sits in a small amount of time compared with the eons of spoken stories, ballads - and a future where the book may disappear altogether. 

Joanna gave her own impressions of writing for Barrington Stoke, and the challenge of having to use limited vocabulary to tell compelling stories. Finally, larkmead's librarian Frances Stott focused more on the "Won't Read" side of things, having produced a display of books that seemed to appeal to kids who, ordinarily, were not turned on by 'traditional' books - and who needed a special approach in terms of motivation. Everything from graphic novels to Top Gear books.

This by the way is a very clumsy - and misrepresentative - summary of the entirety of what was discussed, which included readings, tips, personal anecdotes. The evening ended with a look at Barrington Stoke's huge range of books, and a chance to ask questions directly of all the speakers. Many people stayed until quite late, and I hope that everyone had the chance to pick up information, parent packs - but more importantly, by taking time out from the busy lives that we all lead, and get to some of the core elements of the power of stories and the reasons that we do - or don't - read, everyone went away inspired to try some different approaches with overcoming some of the serious hurdles that a lot of children face in trying to read.