Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mostly Cupcakes

If you've been in the shop recently you may have noticed an unusually large amount of pink, paint, not to say a great smell of cake, among our usual bookish and serious activities - and wondered what it was all for.

Well, the sign next to the heater saying 'beware wet paint' wasn't anything to do with a bit of springtime DIY, but was the pièce de résistance of our secret Cupcake Window, which we can now unveil.

The twin celebrations of it being Mother's Day - and a new book from those folk at the Hummingbird Bakery - was too much to resist and we wanted to share our new window which went up today! Many thanks to Ellie and Karen for all their hard work.

Ellie's three-tier cupcake stand is the stunning centrepiece of our cupcake window. (The photo doesn't do it justice - I may have to try another tomorrow.)

Even if you've yet to be won over by the wonder of cupcakes, surely everyone likes a bit of celebratory cake.

The Hummingbird Bakery has been at the forefront of the baking trend and was the first American cupcake bakery in the UK. Their new book 'Cake Days', is a beautiful, highly photographic book packed with easy, fun cakes that are focused on those events and celebrations when people love to bake.

And our Mother's Day special offer will give you £5 off the book.

 If you look closely in the bottom right-hand corner you can see Ellie's homemade cupcakes, complete with tiny hummingbird designs.

Ellie's creativity wasn't just about cupcakes - this is her home made three tier cake (book) stand, which is the feature point in our window. As you can't really tell now it is covered with books just how wonderful it is luckily I took a picture when it was still a work in progress.

Finally - if all of this has made you feel hungry for some, erm, cake - drop in on Saturday - while you are browsing for a perfect Mother's Day gift and card you can sample some of our favourite recipes as we will be serving cupcakes all day (while stocks last). And believe us, we have tried a lot of recipes over the last few weeks to find our favourite and our best!

The Fabulous Baking Memoir

Anyone who has had a dream off turning their hobby into a business and giving up their day job might be interested in this story of the ups and down of starting a bakery.
There is a lot any owner of a small business would recognise – oh, the glamour of learning so many new skills – health codes, nutritional breakdown legislation, adequate packaging choices, correct storage of ingredients – all a far cry of the feel of the dough and the satisfaction of a delicately iced sponge.
Then there’s the struggle for perfection and huge worry and guilt if ever you let someone down. The beginning to wonder if you can ever take a day off and how long you can keep going at doing something you love and still pay the mortgage.
The story will have a wider appeal to as Gesine was a refugee from Hollywood, disillusioned and exhausted from listening to too many bad pitches for films and being used up as a contact with little or no recognition for the hard work if you are simply a tiny cog in a big machine. There are plenty of stories of Hollywood nonsense.
But what I found particularly heartwarming, was how Gesine discovered ‘emotional pastry needs’. Making all those delicious treats and special occasion cakes for people often put her in touch with people at their most needy and vulnerable.
Through baking she became reacquainted with her better self that had got well trampled on in Hollywood. And her journey to become a master baker was also a personal journey of reconnecting with her German roots – memories of her own mother and childhood all come flooding back as she bakes.
You would think that with all those beautiful cakes she describes they could have found a few for a picture for the cover. The current cover is a little garish and the book languished in my reading pile for a long time because I thought I wouldn’t like it. But once you get inside it’s a bit of a guilty treat.
You can’t fail to be swept up by details of the ‘Hollywood effect’. Gesine’s sister is the actress Sandra Bullock, so when big sis came to lend a hand on opening day, word got out.
Queues around the block, national news coverage – the picture of Sandy mid-pastry transaction voted Newsweek’s picture of the week – and 8,000 orders via email. The weight of orders threatened to shut them down before they’d even started. And she’d planned a quiet opening so she could learn as she went along.
Her love of baking and skill shines through every page. And there are recipes. And a conversion chart at the back. Not a bad choice if you’re stuck for ideas for Mother’s Day.
Starting over, one cake at a time           Gesine Bullock-Prado   Allison & busby            12.99

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to train a grown-up

Jenny Smith's 'Diary of a Parent Trainer' is a well-observed celebration of the minutiae of family life, written partially in the form of a very funny ‘how to handle your grown-ups manual’ – a guide Katie Sutton is writing to help teenagers get on better with their parents, with herself firmly in the role of ‘expert’.
The format provides plenty of fun and young teens will find lots to recognise and chuckle at (and I did), such as the useful hints (note Katie’s stress on the importance of frequent light vacuuming in helping you generate positive response from your grown-up). I loved this imaginative format and how the story unfolds.
Grumpy mode – one of the easiest modes to identify because it is when everything in the world annoys your grown-up. Even if you asked them if you could go to London to receive a Bravery Award from the Prime Minister for saving loads of people’s lives they’d probably say no.
Katie lives in ‘the most boring village in Oxfordshire’, but her mates and her family provide plenty of fun and laughter and Katie reckons she is the best at keeping up her mum’s spirits (especially since Dad died). 
And Katie certainly is pretty good at managing her mother, subtly steering her to her way of thinking, from winning approval of mini skirts to making the most of sympathy mode. Mum is pretty pliable (with often not a lot more than a bit of light vacuuming needed).
But things are about to change. The story proper opens with the fact that Katie, her sister and mates reach the age when they have a new distraction: Boys!
But the fun really starts when Mum shocks everyone by being first to find herself a boyfriend and chaos ensues.
An imaginative, light and funny read that’s also very wise at its heart.
So . . a short read and a short review this week and therefore no excuse not to go back to my kale sandwiches (we started a veggie box last week). I did wonder what Katie and her mum might make of our veggie box. My suspicions were aroused when the salesman made a particular point of asking if we ate kale (in such a way as to suggest that they might be able to offer us a very cheap deal on half a hundred weight if we were interested in helping unload it quickly). This was reinforced by the first box containing not only the expected large head of kale, but a quirky leaflet entitles ‘100 unexpectedly delicious ways with kale’. 
‘Of course you can always go on line and change it,’ the salesman had assured me. Did he really think I was the sort of person who would cave in after Week One of Coping with Kale and go and click on having some of those nice pea pods freshly air-imported from Kenya instead? Surely the point is that you get into the flow of the seasons. (‘and of course we do bananas and oranges’ he also said, making me feel that there was more than a chance he was missing the point).
So. Now into Week Two and we have a kale (very likely to lead to another comment like last week from my four-year-old ‘that’s green and it’s not broccoli’), a threateningly large looking swede and a butternut squash and not a knife in the drawer that isn’t more used to the challenge of that film that covers that very tasty ready prepared ‘swede and squash mash’ we’re all very fond of. 
‘We’ve given you a free gift’ chirruped a notice on the top, making me quake for a double portion of kale to inventively finely chop into recipes (it even went in the pizza last week). But no. A nice friendly box of eggs. Kale omelette anyone?

Diary of a Parent Trainer              Jenny Smith       Scholastic 5.99

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Better than Wordsworth

Katherine Swift is a gardening writer who can not only tell you at a glance a variety of daffodil, but is willing to take long journeys to discover a particular variety and then write about their individual beauty for a whole column - and make it not only interesting, but compelling.

This is probably because Katherine Swift enjoys sublime talents. She is a keen nature observer, has an ability to weave in snippets of fascinating history, and has a delicious way with words.

So it is hardly surprising that she has very quickly grown to become one of the best-loved gardening and nature writers of her generation.

Her story of how she created her garden at The Dower House in Morville 'The Morville Hours' was widely and highly praised, so it is delightful that there is now a follow-up, 'The Morville Year', which is based on a collection of her gardening columns in 'The Times' (and also has photos this time).

Whether discussing the relative merits of wild foxgloves over the bred variety, how a swarm of bees (hers) saw off workmen from the National Trust, or the technicalities of what constitutes a native species, Katherine Swift's 'The Morville Year' has something to engage and delight on every beautifully written page.

The enjoyment of Katherine's writing for me comes not just from the tips about 'this is your last chance to trim your wisteria'. I adore the historical details of individual fruits and vegetables. Every plant has a story.

Katherine Swift planned her garden one winter: 'I read and dreamed and cross-referred and made lists, writing my guidebook to a garden which did not yet exist. By March my imaginary garden was so real that I could walk about it and smell the flowers.'

Many have, through her books and columns, enjoyed the resulting garden and have walked with her and listened to her point out charmingly named corners such as the nuttery, while sharing her musings on everything from the wisdom of introducing vegetables into the English diet to the precision and pleasure of getting water features just right.

You can sit and read 'The Morville Year' and believe that one day your garden, too, will have old roses tumbling over a wisteria clad crumbling stone wall.

There, right there, where the compost bin currently resides against that pile of dangerously lopsided bricks your son was using as a makeshift mud pie stove.

And almost, just almost, makes you feel that next time you look at your patchy, weed-infested plot, home to slugs the size of rodents, you can dream one day you too could have smooth lawns and fragrant old roses.

Or perhaps you can just close the door quietly and sit down and read Katherine's book.
'The Morville Year' Katherine Swift           Bloomsbury 18.99

(Katherine Swift will be coming to Mostly Books in Abingdon on April 6 - learn more here)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

World Book Night

Saturday night - and we had NO IDEA what to expect for our contribution to the inspirational book event / crazed social experiment that was World Book Night. Our shop is small, and our in-shop events are usually limited to thirty guests, so one might think it slightly reckless to issue an open invitation, free wine, and - more importantly - FREE BOOKS to our entire mailing list, now numbering more than a thousand local booklovers. Luckily a) we had billed it as a drop-in event over a two-hour period, and b) not everyone showed up.

Still, it did get a bit cosy at one point, our customers tend to be extremely nice, friendly people our guests moved around to ensure that everyone had access to the wine and the books.
We were brilliantly supported by members of the local Abingdon Writers Group, including an extremely talented young writer, Jo, who had been to the Trafalgar Square event the night before. She has written up her World Book Night experiences here, and been far nicer (and slightly more objective) of our modest event than I could ever be.

As Jo mentions, on the evening we cajoled guests into writing their own favourite books - and guilty pleasures - on our World Book Night Board, which is now on display in the shop:

It must also be said that - for us - Saturday was manic for the whole day, but just why was this? World Book Night of course has not been uncontroversial, with plenty of booksellers, authors and publishers critical at a time when many in the industry are under the cosh from the recession, supermarkets, Amazon, eBooks and other economic and technological factors. An alternative World Book Night plan was mooted (and author Nicola Morgan deserves to become the patron saint of independent booksellers as a result).

My own feeling is that a combination of World Book Day vouchers, World Book Night, Alternative World Book Night, and simply some brighter weather on the high street all combined to form a perfect storm of awareness, enthusiasm and passion about books that brought people into bookshops and wanting to part of something special. Slightly cynically, perhaps the fact that World Book Night *was* controversial delivered the amount of press coverage it needed to gain critical mass. Who knows.

Whether this is just a temporary blip or the start of a resurgence in book sales, only time will tell. But I feel that World Book Night - in terms of an audacious concept - has delivered the goods. It will be difficult to do the same next year, but here's a thought: 50,000 copies of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" were given out, kick-starting the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. Imagine next year using the night as a springboard to launch the writing careers of 25 *new* British authors onto the national, and then international stage?

Now that might have some solid economic reasons behind it.

One thing's for sure: at our World Book Night Party, in amongst the wine and free books, we still sold a lot of books.

A huge, huge thank you for everyone who attended...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Katherine Langrish blog tour - updated link

The Katherine Langrish interview as part of her West of the Moon blog tour can now be found here.

Robert Muchamore alert. Signing POSTPONED

(For immediate release)

Release BEGINS:

Robert Muchamore, the bestselling author of the CHERUB and Henderson Boys books, has been incapacited by agents hostile to CHERUB, and will - sadly - no longer be able to travel to Abingdon for the scheduled booksigning at 6pm on March 3rd.

This event has had to be POSTPONED.

It will be rearranged at a future date. More information will be released as Robert's condition becomes clearer. You can follow updates on Robert's Twitter feed.
The suspicion at the moment is a toxic substance, which has left Robert with severe flu-like symptoms - and no voice. How enemy agents managed to slip through Robert's rebust security systems is, at the present time, a mystery, but new wood flooring recently installed in the author's house is the current prime suspect.

More information as we get it. We have set up a special email address for enquiries about Robert's health, and any information you may have for this audacious attack.

Release ENDS

Vikings, Trolls and Granny Greenteeth: "West of the Moon" Blog Tour interview with Katherine Langrish

Katherine Langrish is an author we know very well here at Mostly Books, and tomorrow her new book West of the Moon is published. The book combines all the books of her acclaimed 'Troll' trilogy - Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood - but there's a lot more to it than that...

Katherine kindly agreed to be interviewed about the new book, so let's find out more behind the project, and her life as a writer...
Hi Katherine, welcome to the blog.

You are a firm favourite here at Mostly Books, with the Troll series of books, and the fantastic Dark Angels – and (although you can’t see me!) I’m here holding an advance copy of West of the Moon. Essentially it’s all three ‘Troll’ books bound into one volume – but there’s a lot more to it than that: new cover design together with significant revisions and updates incorporated by you.

"West of the Moon is a fantasy set in the Viking period – around 1000 AD – and it’s the coming-of-age story of a young man, Peer Ulfsson, following his journey from ill-treated orphan boy to quietly confident young hero. Peer isn’t your typical hero-with-a-sword – he’s too poor to own one – and his experiences have left him with a tendency to be anxiety and self-doubt, but he’s quick thinking, fiercely loyal, essentially brave and good. (As one US blogger said to me, ‘Peer’s so sweet – how can you not fall in love with him?’)"

"The books begins like a tale told by a Northern fireside. I like to have a bit of everything in a story, so there’s humour and romance as well as danger and drama. And plenty of magical creatures, from the grotesque trolls, to the sinister water spirit who tries to lure Peer to his death, to the friendly but touchy little Nis (see my spot on yesterday’s tour for more about him!)"

"And Peer’s desperately in love with Hilde – but is she in love with him, or with someone else? Their adventures span continents and years, taking them from the troll-haunted mountain where they first meet, across the wild Northern seas and finally on an epic voyage all the way to Vinland (North America) on a Viking longship with a cursed captain and a murderous crew."

How does the single volume differ from the three separate books, and what changes have been made? Was this something that you always planned to do?

"To answer the last question first, it wasn’t something I could plan for, but I always hoped to be able to do it.  You could call ‘West of the Moon’ my ‘director’s cut’.  There are numerous small differences: I personally revised and trimmed the three Troll books for this edition – and I think it’s now tighter, pacier and an altogether smoother read.  No episodes have been missed out, the story is essentially unchanged, but it now flows in a more powerful and streamlined way from the first page to the last.  And of course I was able to cut all the bits of back-story which you have to put into separate sequels. (You know the kind of thing:  ‘But Harry was no ordinary boy. Ever since his twelfth birthday, when an owl had delivered him a telegram summoning him to Hogwarts…’)"

You’ve been rightly praised for drawing on a variety of Norse and Celtic mythology to create the world in 'West of the Moon'. Was there anything in particular that drew you towards this area when you first started to write, or was it just something that sprang from your imagination?"

I’m going into more detail on this question later in the tour, but briefly, I’ve always loved myths and legends, as you can see from a glance at my own blog!  And the Norse and Celtic stories are so close to home – the two strands of our homegrown British legends."

I couldn’t help being struck by the maps in the front of the book, in particular “Vinland”, which features prominently in the last third of the book. There seems to have been a lot of new research in recent years about the Viking discovery of North America – not to mention interest in what the arctic climate was like back then. Since writing the original books, have you received comments or feedback from readers – or has new research come to light – that you’ve taken on board in West of the Moon? How much scholarship have you had to do regarding the book, and how do you go about doing it?"

I did so much research! But no, nothing I’m aware of has come to light since the publication of Troll Blood in 2007 that would cause me to change my picture of the world of ‘West of the Moon’. I did a great deal of research over the course of the writing of the book. You have to remember the book is historical fantasy, not straight history, so in some cases I don’t mind the odd anachronism – the watermill in the first two parts of the book is not an authentic tenth century Norse mill, for example; but it would have been so difficult – and so irrelevant to the narrative – to try and explain the difference, I decided to go with the more familiar medieval variety."

"But there were some points where accuracy mattered very much indeed. I spent a week sailing a replica Viking ship on Roskildefjord in Denmark to try and make my characters’ voyage as realistic as I could. And the Native American parts of the book: settings, culture and folklore based on that of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, took me more than six months to research – often in the Bodleian Library – and I then had it checked by a world authority on the subject. When you’re handling the myths and legends of another culture, I think you have a duty to try and get it as right as possible."

How important is reader feedback to you generally, and your ongoing writing?

"Well, it’s always nice to hear if someone has enjoyed the books!  But – to my writing?  No, it isn’t important at all.  I write exactly what I want to write, and I never let anyone get involved in the process – in fact it’s rare for me to let anyone else even see it until it’s finished."

I’ve been lucky enough to see you ‘perform’ in front of schoolchildren – talking about modern mythology, linking it to the past – and often getting the children to act out sometimes gruesome Viking ‘events’ such as beheadings, which the kids absolutely love! I know that you started out as a ‘professional’ storyteller before becoming an author, and I wondered how important that background was to your development as a writer?

"I think it must have been very important – and the best evidence I can give is that, before I did the storytelling, I was writing stories and not selling them – and after I’d spent a few years’ storytelling, I wrote ‘Troll Fell’ and sold it, so the proof of the pudding…?"

"From oral storytelling, I think I unconsciously learned a lot about pacing and structure. And what works in a tale and what doesn’t. You hold your audience’s eyes, and you see straight away if they start to yawn!"

Your writing has been compared to authors such as Alan Garner, who has a reputation of being a challenging author (and who, incidentally, was never happy that his earlier books were ‘sold’ as children’s books). Do you write with children in mind, or do you simply tell stories and let other people worry about the age of the reader? Can children handle more complex plots and language than adults sometimes give them credit for?

"I’m very happy to be known as a writer for children and young adults, even though I know many adults who also enjoy my books.  Children are more than capable of coping with complex, layered narratives.  I know, because I used to be one.  I honestly write the stories I want to write.  I don’t worry too much about the age of the reader.  Some of the best fanmail I’ve ever had has come from children and teenagers who’ve told me ‘I never read a book right through before I read yours’, and this makes me wonder – since to read my fairly literary prose, they must be competent readers – whether the adults in charge of their reading have been offering them books which are too simplistic and uninspiring?  It’s just a thought."

Finally, for World Book Night we are challenging authors and readers to name one or two books that had a big impact on them when growing up, or books that they unhesitatingly recommend to everyone. Which books influenced you most when growing up, and which would you recommend without question?"

A book recommendation can never be unhesitating, because it has to be tailored to the individual reader. You have to know someone’s tastes before you thrust something at them. The books which influenced me? Many are now out of print, but – the Narnia books by C S Lewis, George Macdonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’, Lucy Boston’s gentle ghosts in ‘The Children of Green Knowe’, E Nesbit’s ‘The Enchanted Castle’, ‘Viking’s Dawn’ by Henry Treece, and ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’ by Rosemary Sutcliff, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Books’, and ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ – Kipling is one of Britain’s most brilliant short story writers, in my opinion…

But I think I’d better stop!"


Katherine - you could definitely go on, those recommends are fab. Thanks very much for your time, and for (hopefully) giving readers of the blog lots to think about whether they are a reader or a writer.

West of the Moon is published by HarperCollins Children's Books on March 3rd, RRP £7.99. And of course, we will have copies in the shop...

Katherine's blog tour continues at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books on launch day tomorrow...