Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Diamond Is Forever - Carte Blanche and Jeffery Deaver

By a series of very fortunate events, last Friday we were proud to host one of only three public events in the UK to coincide with the launch of the new James Bond novel 'Carte Blanche', with the book's remarkable author Jeffery Deaver.
Having been fortunate to have had the opportunity of meeting Jeffery earlier in the year, and on discovering his passion for science (particularly in the field of forensics), a few light bulbs had been set off, and an intriguing germ of an idea for an event was born; one at the suitably Bond-esque setting of the Diamond Synchrotron, just down the A34 from Abingdon:
See what I mean?

So, on a busy bank holiday Friday evening, in blazing sunshine, and despite horrendous traffic, two Bentley Continental GTs rolled up outside Diamond House (that's the square building to the left of the main synchrotron, connected via umbilical chord). Deaver - a writer who long ago acknowledged a huge debt to Ian Fleming - has reunited Bond with Bentley in the new book, hence the suitably 007-branded ride:

Jeffery was whisked up to the boardroom for a presentation from several of the Diamond staff led by Dominic Semple, and then taken on a tour of the facility itself:

Jeffery was shown the science and engineering behind the facility, and its use in everything from materials research to drug design, via food manufacture, document preservation and the potential for forensic analysis.

Meanwhile, the Mostly Books team of staff and volunteers were setting up in the atrium in preparation for the main event.

Naturally, there were drinks on arrival, and - of course - there were cocktails. "Mary Goodnight Fizz" was the non-alcoholic option, but the main drink was a Vodka Martini. There may have been instructions on how it was to be prepared... 
As the guests started to arrive, it became clear that several had come from some distance: Surrey, Sussex, Manchester, Edinburgh, Tulsa OK and Las Vegas...
Guests also had a chance to to take a peak inside the synchrotron, thanks to the Diamond staff on hand giving sneak-peek tours. It's a breathtaking facility, hard to believe it's on our doorstep, with much of the research going on possible nowhere else in the world.

Jeffery had quite an entrance into the atrium, down the stairs from the main building:

There was still the link to be made in the introduction: was Bond still relevant, and why the link between research, technology and the cultural phenomenon that is Bond? Ian Fleming was one of the first to realise that conflict in the modern world would be fought - and won - by superior information, which meant superior technology. In 'Carte Blanche', Deaver brings Bond bang up-to-date, with iPhones and apps - but you can draw a line to this from Enigma in the Second World War. Laboratories are as much in the front line as soldiers when it comes to responding to the challenges of the modern world...

Far from being outdated, Bond is probably more relevant now than he ever was. Fleming created a hero whose characteristics - loyalty, duty, right action - can be applied anew in every age. (Deaver's book recognises this incidentally in the dedication to Fleming at the beginning: "To the man who taught us we could still believe in heroes").
Jeffery is a consumate speaker, and took the audience through the story of how he came to write Carte Blanche, how Fleming influenced him as a young reader, and how a 'Jeffery Deaver novel' comes to be written. (Gaskella has written a fabulous summary of his talk here).

We had questions - and then a signing afterwards. Jeffery seems to genuinely enjoy meeting readers, and I can see why his die-hard fans (or which several were in the audience) travel great distances to meet him.

As the evening drew to a close, Jeffery posed with two of the cocktail waiters:

 ...the adrenaline-drenched booksellers...
 ...and then those Bentleys whipped him away, bound for the Hay Festival the next day via an Oxfordshire Hotel.
There is a list as long as your arm to thank, but to Laura, Dominic and Patrick at Diamond - the venue performed superbly and all the staff were amazing. Mostly Books staff and helpers had a very late night, and were a stunningly dressed and hard-working team throughout. To all our guests who braved a drive out to the wilds of Oxfordshire on the cusp of a bank holiday weekend - I hope you had a very entertaining and memorable evening (and are now enjoying the book!). Thanks to Hodder in entrusting us with one of their most important authors and for giving us an amazing opportunity. And the redoubtable Katy, from Colman-Getty, now has a working knowledge of X-Ray defraction to go with her incredible skills in PR.

But mostly, our thanks must go to Jeffery Deaver himself, at the eye of the Bond-hurricane, on a strength-sapping launch schedule - all best wishes from everyone there on the evening, and good luck with the global tour...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Writing is alive and well in Abingdon library

Abingdon still has its library – pretty good news by itself after the recent announcement of cuts. But Abingdon Library also recently re-opened after a refurb that has made the downstairs more open and made it easier to browse books.
One of the benefits has been the creation of a cosy new reading space and is a great place for community meetings – and this was taken advantage of by local writers on Tuesday May 17.
From life writing, through romantic fiction, travel writing and how to make money from generating web content – all was brought up for sharing as an amazing array of writers for all genres were represented.
The morning discussion was led by Abingdon Writers, and joined by two other writing groups, as well as individual writers, for a wide-ranging conversation demonstrating just what a lively writing scene is alive and well in Abingdon
Five members of Abingdon Writers gave a talk about how their writing group evolved out of a meeting of like-minds at an Oxford writers event at Mostly Books two years ago.
Now the group is 18 strong, with a waiting list and meets twice-monthly for shared critique, support and market information. The group shared some of their passions for particular writing genres, discussed the benefits of sharing and critiquing and how to get inspiration, before questions were taken from the floor.
The questions were about everything from organising your work to organising your time and there was a quick-fire swap of advice from all the writers present.
With all the bad news about libraries, it is certainly something to be celebrated that our own library is not only secure, but reaching out and finding new ways to generate enthusiasm and celebrate the joys of both reading and writing.
Thanks very much to Lynne Moores at the library and Mary Cavanagh from Abingdon Writers for organising and hosting such a great and well-attended event.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Can’t We All Just Be Nice To One Another?

The word 'social' is hot right now. Social networking is the new dotcom boom, and everyone seems to be piling onto Twitter and Facebook in the hope of striking it rich. So when New York Times journalist and author David Brooks was asking – as he claims at the back of his book– “roughly twenty-four million people” for the title of his book, The Social Animal seems a pretty shrewd selection.

But the title definitely works. Forget narrow definitions of Internet services, humans are social animals, and we use (no, need, no, crave) social networking in order to achieve anything of any value in order to survive, thrive and be happy.

You know this of course. I know this. Each of us needs all of us, no man is an island. The American Pledge of Allegiance start with “I” and ends with “all”, etc. But the fact that there are plenty of quotes, homilies and folk wisdom for our interdependence gives us a big clue as to its fundamental place at the core of what it means to be human. What David Brooks does in The Social Animal is to show us – through stories, examples and research – exactly why this is so.

The use of the word success on the cover is also revealing. Dale Carnegie, the granddaddy of success literature, once wrote that “you and I don't need to be told anything new. We already know enough to lead perfect lives . . . The purpose of this book is to . . . kick you in the shins and inspire you to do something about it.".

And what a kick in the shins (or perhaps to a more delicate area) this book is. It is a laudable feat of concentration and discipline, as Brooks takes us through the lives of two different people, Erica and Harold, and explores what it is that made them successful, even before they were born. At the outset he explains his goals for the books – his desire to write in the style of Rousseau’s Emile, i.e. take the learnings of modern research out of the abstract, and into the concrete through the two characters he creates. That’s a very high bar to set – and we expect him to take a spill, but for the most part I reckon he pulls it off.

We follow Harold and Erica through their lives, and along the way collect fantastic pieces of insight and research in terms of how children develop, how we make decisions, the groups we fall into at school and beyond – and the ways we fall in love. The relationship between Harold and Erica doesn’t always ring true – hardly surprising given that he puts their lives through as many ‘mangles’ as possible to allow him to explore the maximum number of fields of human interaction. But you do develop a fondness for the characters, and you care enough so that the end – when it comes – does leave genuine sadness.

As a manual for living, there are gems throughout. As a parent with young boys I found myself making notes at times on issues such as resolving homework disputes, and how to encourage a lifelong passion for music. Some of the passages on Harold – his somewhat squandered adolescence, and some of his philosophies in middle age, did get a bit close to the bone (particularly a fixation on suffering, and a small but fascinating section on how we are all either 'Guessers' or 'Askers'). There’s also a mine of book recommendations scattered throughout – I’m now desperate to get hold of The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton (and I’ve ordered a copy for the shop...).

Talking of Greece, the book does have the feel of a marathon. There is a mass of research, and in covering so many areas it did occasionally get a bit too much for me – although I found it impossible to ‘skip ahead’ for fear of missing some piece of crucial research, buried in the story. I even experienced my own 17-mile ‘wall’ to break through, and this occurred when Harold and Erica get involved in a presidential campaign, which feels very shoehorned in so that the author can say what is wrong with modern politics, society in general and leadership. He talks about Hamiltonian politics, and Abraham Lincoln, familiar to anyone who (like me) has read a fair amount of US success literature in his time: he’s the ‘go-to’ president for anyone wanting to evoke all that is wonderful about presidential leadership.

It does get very US-centric, although at one point there’s a bone thrown to the Brits (or more accurately, to David Cameron) about British Society, its ills, and possible fixes. His suggestions have apparently resulted in David Brooks being invited over to talk to MPs about The Big Society. Anyone somewhat befuddled as to what the Big Society actually is might get a big clue from reading Brooks' book. As far as I can understand, plenty of Conservative (and Lib Dem) MPs are doing just that.

At times you feel the author is simply trying to make the plea “Why can’t we all just be nice to one another?”. But at least he is offering up a wealth of proof to show why we should be nice to one another – or at least respectful of our place within the social network - and how that can have a major positive impact on our lives.

But any criticisms do feel a bit small-minded and mean-spirited. This is a major work of passion and erudition, a constantly surprising distillation of someone who cares deeply about the current crisis of humanity and ways it might be fixed. As a tool for self-knowledge, I’ve not read anything to touch it in many years. Just be warned: it might make uncomfortable reading at times. This bookshop owner feels his shins are well and truly bruised – but in a good way.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An evening with Anthony Horowitz

I've done some strange things as a bookseller, but walking through Abingdon carrying a large, battery-operated flashing Scorpia Rising display stand must be up there near the top.

We'd had the stand for a month, down the back of the shop, ready and prepared for the bookstall we had very kindly been asked to set-up for a charity event with Anthony Horowitz to raise funds for Helen and Douglas House. However, once we realised the stand would not fit in the car - there was nothing else for it. Luckily the venue is about a ten minute walk away from the shop. And let's be honest, it's Mr Horowitz we're talking about here. Anything to make sure he felt right at home in Abingdon...

I was understandable nervous ahead of the event - five years of selling Alex Rider books, never met the author before, and - like many successful writers - he's obviously someone who demands a lot of himself and those around him. But I needn't have worried: Anthony was a joy to meet and talk to, he was brilliant with the kids (and adults) who queued for over 90 minutes to get their books signed.

But the hour he spent talking and answering questions was a revelation. I don't know quite what I was expecting: maybe some advice for young authors, some amusing anecdotes from the peaks of bestsellerdom, perhaps measured insights into his writing process (from his children's books to writing for Midsomer Murders and Foyles War).

What we got was a highly energetic, hugely entertaining roller-coaster ride through his childhood, education, books, television, film - and with an exclusive extract from House of Silk (the new Sherlock Holmes book already completed, awaiting publication in November) read to an enthralled audience. Throw in an exclusive preview of his new ITV drama Injustice, and lots of questions answered from fans - it was a fantastic evening.
He posed for photographs, and had plenty of discussions with young readers on everything from where he got the names of his baddies from, to what to expect in "Yassen", the "final, final" Stormbreaker book (albeit one not involving Alex Rider) to be published next year.
This was Anthony with the team of volunteers from Helen and Douglas House...and below, with one of the House Guests, Josh Langley...
Now, if you look closely at the girl on the left (Harriet) and on the right (Michelle - although I may have mis-remembered their names) they are wearing home-made Stormbreaker T-shirts. I dubbed them the Stormbreaker-ettes:
...and here are Louis and Jakobi, who were first to the venue and actually got their books signed before the event started...

...and this young chap Mark managed to hurtle out of the auditorium to be first in the queue after the talk, and gets the 'Horowitz-fan-of-the-night' award...

Finally, obligatory pose with slightly overwhelmed booksellers. That's the display stand we're leaning against. He was pretty pleased to see it - so well worth the few odd looks I got from people in the town when I carried it back later, tired but happy...

Our busy couple of months continue...follow this link to find out what we've got coming up.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Why not indulge in this delicious French secret?

Tatiana de Rosnay’s book arrived and with a title ‘A Secret Kept’ it went immediately onto my ‘potential treats’ pile. A book that has a secret at its heart generally gets my vote for an enjoyable read.
The cover says: ‘combines the suspense of Douglas Kennedy with the psychological perception of Maggie O’Farrell’ , thus giving the author something impossible to live up to.
So I was particularly happy when ‘A Secret Kept’ turned out to be really engaging and peopled with gorgeous French settings and characters with names like Solange and Clarisse. Better and better.
The heart of the book is a family disengaging by the minute. Antoine is covering his grief after the departure of his wife (for a photographer called Serge) and in increasing isolation as his children grow into unresponsive teenagers.
Antoine starts investigating what he begins to think is the suspicious circumstances surrounding the last family visit to the sometime island of Gois when he was a child, and the death of his mother soon after.
The story of a grand family and a buried secret could easily have descended into melodrama. But fortunately Tatiana de Rosnay hasn’t reached for cheap shock tactics or unbelievable twists to play out her story, which is firmly centred on the effect the loss of a beloved mother can have on her children and the legacy of fractures in a family. Antoine starts to recognise his own failures that have led to his family growing away from him.
The truth Antoine uncovers is not the terrible secret he has begun to imagine, but many of the best stories about secrets are those that explore the damage done by having secrets at all.
And as with all the best stories, second chances are offered, family repairs stitched up and everyone accepts that no-one is perfect.
I particularly like the fact that a lot of the tape for the patching is provided by a leather clad mortician on a motorbike, who provides the healing balm for Antoine and the wounds left by his wife, which she tends as carefully as she dresses and beautifies a dead body.
So full marks for Tatiana from me – my favourite indulgent read so far this year.
A Secret Kept    Tatiana de Rosnay           Pan        7.99