Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Gospel According to Thursday Next

Shortly before Nicki and I opened Mostly Books, we drew up a list of 'dream' authors who we had no chance of getting in initially, but who we would wait patiently for until an opportunity arose. Near the top of that list was Jasper Fforde, and on Tuesday night we realised our long-held ambition of enticing him to Abingdon.

It was very much worth the wait - one of the best events we've done.

We've met Jasper a couple of times, and his reputation as being one of the most more approachable, entertaining, down-to-earth guys is well-deserved. He actually talks like he writes: disarming, compelling, full of lessons if you know where to look - and slightly random at times!

We held the event in the suitably reverential St Nicolas Church, just down the road from the shop. It's a fantastic venue, and the event was meticulously planned, but (just like his books) you get the impression that with Jasper, you are never quite sure if any random events will occur to throw plans awry - and so it proved. Half an hour before the event started, workmen closed the street outside the church and started digging it up. As the street machines moved ever closer, the impression inside the church was one of a washing machine - but the ancient building proved remarkably soundproof, and the PA system was up to the job of transmitting Jasper's words to his 'congregation':
Mr Fforde slipped effortlessly into the 'english country vicar' role:
...and the packed church was treated to topics as diverse as dealing with rejection (of the publishing sort - Jasper was rejected 76 times before The Eyre Affair was finally published), the books he read as a child (and adult), whether there might ever be a Thursday Next film, and the origins of some of the more bizarre elements in the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime books.
He revealed that there is to be a sequel to both The Last Dragonslayer and Shades of Grey, and after talking and answering questions for over an hour, stayed for another hour meeting fans and signing books...
...and posing for photos of course!
A truly wonderful evening, and we are very grateful to Jasper for making it such a memorable event for his fans, some of whom had travelled all the way from Swindon to attend (and that's not a joke).

Jasper has an array of rubber stamps which he uses on different books when signing, and one of these refers to doing your 'Civic Duty'. Yours - as Jasper was very keen to point out - is to buy copies of his books, read them and get all your friends to do the same. We concur. And if you get them from Mostly Books in the next few days, they'll be signed as well...

Update: see Jasper's tour blog to see what he thought about the visit, other things he's up to...and if he might be coming to a bookshop near you!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Alex Scarrow at St Birinus: how cool is this?

Whilst we were packing up at the end of Alex Scarrow's high-octane event on Thursday, two boys (who may have been sixth-formers at the school, it was difficult to tell) ambled up to the author, and said "man, you're possibly the coolest-looking author we've ever seen."

I have to agree.

Let's examine the evidence: left college, spent ten years in the music business. Had own recording studio. Left to become v.successful as a games designer. Has very cool rock-star looks. Has just signed huge deal with Puffin and has v.famous bestselling writing brother.

Mind you, I think he's particularly cool for other reasons: he fell out of the reading habit at 13, but re-engaged with books, reading and writing motivated in part by a son who is a reluctant reader. To kids enamoured with computer games, he offers up reading as the "alternative".

The event - our first at St Birinus School in Didcot - was an energetic, articulate and passionate affair involving awesome videos, brain-achingly hard history questions and repeated passionate appeals to the boys to read. And Alex seemed to strike home in terms of inspiring the more than 120 boys in the audience.

Alex's publicity photo looks like this:
In real life though he looks way more cool:
Aside from writing adult thrillers (which he was at pains to warn the boys off reading. They were dark, twisted, nasty - to be left alone. Yep. That should do it ;-) ) he has written three children's novels under the Time Riders banner.

Simply put, Time Riders involves a super-secret organisation, with isolated cells operating around the world, watching for people messing with time, and then working against the odds (and the clock) to change it back. These books are epic in scale, and you can only imagine the fun Alex has had in imagining different scenarios: what if the nazis had won WWII? What if dinosaurs hadn't died out? The books contains elaborate and complex plots and timelines, there's genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, atomic weaponry and digressions on big philosophical issues. Oh, and Nazis invading Washington DC. What's not to like, as the saying goes?

The books are gripping and, yes, violent in places. But it's comic book violence, and (largely) any characters that do meet grisly ends (and in book one this certainly happens) the great thing about fixing time is that (mostly) everyone gets to come back. Mostly.
Alex split the boys into two groups, rooting for teams in his high-octane history quiz. There were prizes, there were Millionaire-style lifelines...
...and even a quick-fire general history round at the end with a proper table-top press-bell thing...

There was some shameful examples of help being shouted out by various teachers present, but despite this the quiz was a close-run thing. And we all learned that the battle of Stamford Bridge was not fought in WWII...
Prizes were awards, books signed, and we got into all kinds of trouble by over-running into subsequent lessons, but the headmaster was on hand to gamely step in. We also had some very good questions at the end.

Our big thanks to St Birinus for bending over backwards to accomodate Alex (given the hall was set up for The Wizard of Oz and we were warned on pain of death to stay off the yellow-brick road) but huge thanks also to Alex for dropping in on a tortuous week of events all over the country. Time Riders is a cracking series, huge fun, with strong male and female characters and all the elements of page-turning thrillers to keep kids reading. Come and discover them in the shop...and watch the trailer here below. It's very, ahem, cool...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Viking Myths, Pirate Facts, and the Offside Rule for Girls - a day with Julia Golding

The annual Abingdon School's joint author event is a wonderful tradition amongst the town's schools, and it's a real privilege to be invited along to do the bookselling. Last year we spent an awe-inspiring day in the company of Marcus Sedgwick, and this year we spent the day in the company of Julia Golding - who has also recently started writing under the name of Joss Stirling (more about that in a mo).

Julia is an author we have been desperate to meet for ages. When we opened the bookshop in 2006, she had only just published her first book (The Diamond of Drury Lane which was in our opening stock), and as the years have gone by, we've become increasingly in awe of her, particularly the Companions Quartet and Darcie Lock books). Readers - particularly girls - rave about her, and though I'm bound to say many of her books do appeal to boys, it's great to see strong writing that most definitely appeal to girls.
Julia did three sessions throughout the day - two sessions were aimed at year eights and above, and one session was for a slightly younger age range.

Children's authors have to increasingly be part performer, ringmaster and even stand-up comedian, and Julia pulled this off brilliantly by talking about her books, and interspersing readings with insights into the writing process. She also got the kids up on stage to take part in a various games, pirate dressing up and even a Viking quiz...
...where we learned that Vikings didn't have horned helmets (a Victorian myth apparently, copied by Hollywood) and the Viking king "Harald Bluetooth" - who united parts of Sweden, Denmark and Norway - gave his name to Ericsson's ubiquitous, cable-free 'unification' of PCs and mobile devices. How cool is that? (even better: the Bluetooth icon is actually the Nordic runes for his initials, H and B. Now that's a pub quiz-winning question if I've ever heard one...).
So, here's the obligatory picture of bookseller and author, but...notice the signed copy I'm proudly holding. This is Julia Golding writing as Joss Stirling for teenage readers. What do we think of the book in the shop? I'll leave the last word to Julia (that's Mostly Books' Julia, not the author!) who loved this book:
"Sky, forced to move to America from England with her adoptive parents, thinks that she'll never find her soul mate, her other half. But when she meets Zed, the local bad boy of Wrickenridge, that's exactly what happens. On one level, this is a beautifully-written book for teens about love and friendship which touches on the potency that comes with adolescence. But it's also a book with plenty of action and thrills, and some very sinister gangsters who take a special interest in Sky, and her 'gift'..."
There's a neat running joke in the book about 'soccer' and a nice comment about the off-side rule for girls which has taken on a slightly more contemporary resonance since the book was originally published...

It was a great event, and it's given us a great excuse to have a nice big display of Julia's books in the shop...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Buried Thunder: The Very Dangerous Tim Bowler

Tim Bowler gives the impression of being a very dangerous individual. His books - often masterful psychological thrillers aimed squarely at teenagers - are frequently dark, menacing and subversive, the opposite of a safe read. Multi-layered with troubled characters, wild and remote settings, he plays with words like a poet to inject plenty of raw emotions, and hints of darker forces floating just below the surface.

So I was expecting someone a bit more menacing when we welcomed Tim to Abingdon for two school events today, but he was quite the opposite. Friendly, generous and utterly passionate about writing - I defy anyone to spend five minutes in his company and not come away wanting to start to write.

But Tim is in no way 'safe'; he is definitely a very dangerous and frightening individual. That much passion and energy, barely contained, frequently seems to charge up and fly off like an electrical spark, challenging you to throw caution to the wind and write. He was throwing plenty of advice (and even the off Ernest Hemingway quote) about, and - at the first event of the day at Abingdon School - had 13 year olds reading their creative endeavours out in front of their mates. Casting my mind back to school days, that's the kind of activity which would have scared most of us witless:



The workshop he ran - short, intense and very effective - elicited some cracking prose from the boys, and Tim used the start of his new book, Buried Thunder, as a starting point for the exercise.



Having finished the book last weekend, I found Buried Thunder a simply brilliant and utterly compelling book. It opens with a very unsettling (and gruesome) start and then - a few pages in - there's a genuinely scary supernatural twist that makes the hairs on your arm stand up - and there you are, hooked right through to the race-against-time climax. In terms of the unsettling mood created, I was reminded of Alan Garner's The Owl Service (a book I read when I was about 14, and one that I remember vividly at the time in terms of the way it made me feel)



After signing some copies for the boys, we were able to have a relaxing lunch (at the wonderful Wells Stores) - although the subject matter stayed scary (eBooks and the future of the High Street). We then headed over to Larkmead School, for a daunting talk in front of about 90 year eights...


Cue a range of questions, ranging from 'why are your book titles often oxymorons', to 'do you feel for trees that are cut down to make your books'...



And then more signing, and some impromptu advice for students looking to get started on their own stories:



All in all, a busy but thoroughly enjoyable day spent in the company of a true great of English children's writing (learn more on Tim's website). As time goes on, I increasingly feel that the best children's writing is subversive, and after today I may add 'dangerous' to that as well...

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The only thing we have to fear is...

We may have given the impression over the last few months that our independent bookselling experience has become one long round of schmoozing, travelling to exotic locations and generally hanging around with famous publishing people. This really isn't the case, and most mornings you can still find us sweeping the front of the shop in the morning, juggling the competing (and often contradictory) priorities of a small business - and doing what we love, placing great books in the hands of our customers.

Last night we held a wonderful book launch in the shop, and for me - this is what independent bookselling is all about. Bringing together an author, readers, a great book and making it all happen right in your own bookshop. This happens at any event, but a book launch is particularly special as you are there right at the start of the story.
We first did an event with Andrew Rosenheim almost four years ago, and - having read the proof of the book before Christmas - it was fantastic to be able to launch 'Fear Itself' at Mostly Books last night.
Andrew's latest novel is (IMHO) a significant step-up in terms of ambition and scale. Fear Itself is a powerful 'what if' thriller set mostly in the US in the years leading up to - and then during - the second world war. Focusing largely on aspects of loyalty and trust within the German-American community (and there were approximately 40 million Americans who could point to German heritage) the novel features a young FBI agent Jimmy Nessheim investigating the pro-Nazi Bund organisation. and a potential plot that could alter the direction of the US and World War II.

What really raises this book up as a superior thriller is the way Andrew brings his trademark style to bear on the plot: superb and vivid characterisation, and an ability to get right inside the American psyche in all its multicultural hues. Whether it's the transatlantic relationship, or the growing pains of a young country dragged reluctantly into a global conflict, this is compelling storytelling during an already fascinating period of world history. Real individuals are brought onto the stage to anchor the fiction, and remind you that this really might have happened. A notably figure is J Edgar Hoover and - incredibly - you do get an appreciation of his unique (if slighly creepy) abilities, and probably the only person who could have made the FBI as effective as it was, with the resources available.

It was a delight to host the launch, and we obviously congratulate Andrew and his publishers in what deserves to be a very successful book. And of course, we have signed first editions on the shelves when you next pop into the shop...