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!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Libraries v bookshops

A few weeks ago I was invited onto a radio show to talk take part in a discussion on libraries. The main reason (I think) that they wanted a bookshop owner was so that they could ask the question "so Mark, if libraries close, you'll be quids in, won't you?"

It's an interesting question. And I think it depends on what your view of retail is, and how independent bookshops will survive in the long-term.

One view is as follows: I have a shop, I sell stuff (books and wot-not) , the more people who come to my shop to buy stuff, the happier I am, ergo anything that removes competitive pressure must be good for business.

The other view is: I cannot possibly succeed just selling stuff. I cannot compete on price, range or convenience. I have to offer something value-added, in terms of a better experience, a carefully 'edited' range tailored to my customers, and benefits other than low price.

No prizes for guessing which side we believe ourselves to be on. But what's the link to libraries?

I think if you believe long-term survival depends on the second view, then you are really developing a book-buying community, which is a longer-term play, and - in the final analysis - depends upon developing a local culture of reading and enjoying books, and this is where libraries really come into their own.

Two articles on the BBC website recently (one about our changing experience of books, the other on how technology stops us thinking) got me thinking of the positive aspect of libraries in creating quiet spaces to think.

Interestingly (and not referred to in most of the coverage on the fall in people using libraries) the number of children using libraries has stayed about the same. The danger of moving libraries into supermarkets (for example) is that in trying to update libraries you will lost the things that libraries are still doing very well.

Intuitively, I believe libraries and bookshops can help each other - both are under the cosh at the moment, and both can start working together to develop a healthy local book loving culture (which is how I answered the question on the radio the other week).

One way to do this is to run joint events. The Big Green Bookshop has done this - we're doing it as well this Wednesday with an event commemorating the Battle of Britain and the Girl Guides. I'll let you know how it works out, but my hope is this is the start of a beautiful (and positive) relationship...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Have you got a book that explains chunking and number bonds?"

It was back to school last week and this week, and since the Summer we've had a great book on display entitled "Maths for Mums & Dads". It is written by Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew - and for any parent who has suddenly discovered that primary schools 'don't teach maths like they used to', and are getting awkward questions from their children, come in and have a look at it. It's a great resource, and some schools in the local areas are recommending it to parents.

Rob Eastaway has also written a great piece on the challenge to Mums and Dads today on the BBC main website - it explains some of the changes that have occurred and what parents might do to deal with it. - and is well worth a read...