Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Abingdon Christmas Extravaganza - and a smiley snowman

November is over. Tomorrow night is the annual Abingdon Extravaganza, parade, Christmas lights switch-on and fireworks. This year there will be entertainment in the market square, and hopefully the temperature will be slightly warmer than last year when some of the band musical instruments froze...not to mention one or two Cubs and Brownies.
We spent Sunday doing our Christmas window, and very festive it looks too. Someone came into the shop this evening asking "where did you get your snowman". She was gutted when she learned it had been made for us...
He is a very smiley snowman, and he has been making a lot of people - young and old - smile.

And here he is at night. Aaah.
If you come into the shop, take a look at this utterly gorgeous nativity set from German toy company HABA. Designed to be a family heirloom, and drawing on a German tradition of lovely wooden, handcrafted nativity sets, this does have a wonderful wow-factor. £99 - but we are selling it for £87.99...
The parade starts at 6.45pm, with fireworks scheduled for (approx) 8.30pm. And this Saturday it's a special Christmas shopping day in Abingdon, and all the car parks will be free...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

“We see the world clearly when we're children, and spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what it is we saw” – Garrison Keillor

Cosmic was the first book I read by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It was on the shortlist for the Carnegie award in 2009, and that year – for the first time ever – I read all the books on the list. It was a strong list that year: Eoin Colfer, Siobhan Dowd, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness. But for sheer comic exuberance, and a fantastically imagined story (and me being a sucker for anything to do with space flight), it was easily my favourite.

Cosmic features the exceptionally tall Liam Digby, who – through a series of unlikely events somehow rendered plausible in Boyce’s story – gets mistaken for an astronaut and sent into space.

The inspiration for the exceptionally tall Liam was a boy at a school in Bootle, Merseyside, near to where Frank lives, and the school where he first sat in front of children as part of an author event. The school has influenced Frank (and his stories) in other ways, but the subject of his latest book The Unforgotten Coat takes as its inspiration (clearly the wrong word) a sadder episode from the school.

The story centres around Julie, in her final year at primary school, full of confidence, and on the cusp of stepping out into a wider world. But into her class come two brothers, immigrants from Mongolia – Chingis and Nergui – who not so much turn her world upside down, but make her realise that she only has a grasp of a very small part of it. Wilful, intransigent and full of sinister stories of a demon trying to ‘vanish’ his younger brother (possibly by eating him), Chingis picks Julie to be their ‘Good Guide’ – and she in turns seeks to understand more about their country and culture.

Initially the strangeness of the boys actions put everyone on the wrong foot, including their nomadic wanderings around Bootle, and even turning up and demanding ‘emergency baking’ privileges at Julie’s house. Julie initially wants to assimilate elements of Chingis and Nergui’s world, and thereby enter a Xanadu of strange Mongolian myth and folklore. But when the truth of their lives becomes evident, and Julie starts sorting myth from reality, she is forced to intervene and act beyond her age, something which has dramatic consequences for everyone.

Whether or not you cotton on quickly to the reality of the boy’s lives, or even spot the heartbreaking twist towards the end, is immaterial – this is a book for young children after all. What Frank does so masterfully in The Unforgotten Coat is take you completely into a world as seen through the eyes of the child protagonists. The design of the book works completely to support this, looking and feeling like a school exercise book, complete with pasted-in polaroid photographs. The last aspect comes courtesy of a collaboration between photographers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. The effect works beautifully, and I genuinely can't see this book having the same emotional impact in a digital format.

In all his writing – including his earlier books Framed and Millions – Boyce lets stories unravel through the eyes and imaginations of children. Crucially, he always explores the way imagination can influence reality in profound ways.

This is a theme Frank is passionate about, as anyone who has ever heard him speak or met him will testify. Last weekend, Boyce was (by all accounts) the star turn at the British SCWBI conference in Winchester, sharing anecdotes, inspiring writers and reading liberally from E Nesbit, quoting Richmal Crompton and other authors who bring this quality to their writing.

The Unforgotten Coat is a simple story, and although it is streaked through with sadness, it nevertheless ends on an uplifting note. The message is one of tolerance, mutual respect, and the importance of seeing the world in a different way. These messages can be found in plenty of other children's books, but not perhaps in such a simple and elegant way.

The book has been deservedly shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book of the Year - although my loyalties are slightly torn between this and Lissa Evans' Small Change for Stuart. Together with Morris Gleitzman's Too Small to Fail and Andy Briggs' Tarzan, these are my favourite children's books of the year.

Frank Cottrell Boyce has had a busy year - and 2012 will only get busier. Having also released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (the officially-commissioned sequel to Ian Fleming's original) Frank is also about to enter a two-month writing 'purdah' to script (together with filmmaker and long-time collaborator Danny Boyle) the entire opening ceremony of the London Olympics. No pressure then.

If you ever get a chance to meet Frank, or listen to him speak, please try to do so. He is truly inspirational, and already one of our greatest children's authors.

Frank will be at Mostly Books this Wednesday, 30th November at 1pm, for one hour only, to meet customers and sign copies of Chitty and The Unforgotten Coat. This will be his last public event before his Olympic writing duties, and our last public event of the year. It's a slightly crazy day on Wednesday, what with the possibility of disruption to the school timetable, but if - unexpectedly, at short notice - you find yourself able to come down to the the shop and give him a big welcome to Abingdon, we would be delighted to see you.

More details can be found here. And we would also be delighted to reserve a signed copy of his book if you cannot make it, and would like one as a gift. Please let us know.

Regards - Mark

P.S. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is as much a sequel to the film as to the book, which is just as well, as this is a fun, frenetic romp of a story in which the Tooting family stick a huge engine into a VW Camper Van, which then develops a mind of its own. Flying (literally) between England, Paris, Egypt and Madagascar, and involving a truly sinister and scary baddy (Tiny Jack - a worthy equal to the childsnatcher) this is an action-packed thrilling story that I heartily recommend for ages 8-11. And a sequel is on its way...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hard Times, Great Expectations

In October 1843, a 31-year old author had an idea for a book which he believed would 'strike a sledge hammer blow' for the poor. Despite some early success, he was not doing well as a writer. The 1840s were a time of severe economic downturn in England, and his books had not been selling well.

But the economic situation was taking a far worse toll on the poor, exacerbating their already desperate living conditions. Starving to death was not uncommon. This was the Autumn of 1843, and Engels was in Manchester observing at first-hand the horrors of poverty and child labour. What he wrote as a result of what he saw continues to impact societies across the globe.

The struggling author had also visited Manchester, and the story which came to him - and which he composed "entirely in my head" - was a direct result of that visit. He felt the same anger as Engels, but he focused his anger into fiction. The book was written, illustrated and rushed into print on December 19 1843, sold 6,000 copies in the six days before Christmas, and has since gone on to become one of our most enduring works of fiction.

Much of our attitude towards Christmas - its imagery and traditions - can be traced back to Charles Dickens and "A Christmas Carol". When one thinks of the prevailing 'spirit' of Christmas, of hope, joy, thinking of others - these are all messages that spring readily from Dickens' tale.

It's entirely appropriate, therefore, that two books on Dickens are near the top of our Christmas newsletter - the annual gathering together, by everyone at Mostly Books, of all the titles and gifts that we think you should consider for friends and family this Christmas.

February is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth - and Claire Tomalin's masterful biography is published in anticipation of that - along with many other titles scheduled throughout 2010. Dickens has plenty of advice for the hard times we currently face, incidentally.

We are biased of course, and we believe books make wonderful gifts. But whether you are buying books for others or yourselves this Christmas, we urge you to "make time for books". Turn off your gadgets, clear some time for you and your family, and approach a book with great expectations for providing some solutions to current problems you may face.

And we are here to help. Please just ask.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Steve Jobs of the Renaissance? Keith Devlin's 'The Man of Numbers'

At the start of "The Man of Numbers", the subject of the book - Leonardo of Pisa - is compared to a pre-Renaissance Steve Jobs. Gratuitous and opportunistic? Not really. It's a clever - even canny - comparison admittedly, but spot on. Leonardo of Pisa is better known to us as 'Fibonacci' (a nicknamed coined by a 19th century historian), and as Keith Devlin rather skilfully explains in this beatifully produced book, he took a number system in existence for more than 700 years, optimised it for merchants, made it more user-friendly - and in doing so transformed the world.

The bare facts are these: the Hindu-Arabic number system has been existence for hundreds of years, but in medieval Europe it was of academic interest only, and everyone else got on with roman numberals and the abacus. Calculations - particularly for commerce - were carried out using arcane methods fiercely guarded by calculators, and a lot of trust was involved (no records of any of the working, you see?). Add to the fact that at that time there were a multitude of weights, measures, currencies and you get an idea of the complexities of trade.

Leonardo grew up as the son of a wealthy trader in Pisa, who thus had the education, the experience (through travelling in North Africa) and the opportunity to observe the power of the 'new math' at first hand, and realise the potential for simplifying trade. It is a measure of the ubiquity of the Hindu-Arabic system ("the only global language") that Devlin has to work hard to make us understand the profound implications of using base 10 numbers, of number placement, and of the 'tricks' that can be done to do complex calculations.

Leonardo's publication of Liber abbaci ("The Book of Calculation") was an immediate success, and its focus on being a teaching aid (with plenty of worked examples) ensured its widespread copying and dissemination. The impact was dramatic and rapid. Despite initial resistance to the number system (you can imagine the power-position that existing calculators occupied and their Luddite response) its potential to manage increased complexity meant the new maths was unstoppable, and led to developments in trading, banking, ledger-keeping, and more complex companies based on pooled capital or 'shares'. This was something that turbo-charged Italy's place as the centre of global commerce.

The fact that history has forgotten Leonardo (Fibonacci comes from the moniker 'Fils Bonacci', or son of the Bonacci family) is both surprising and intriguing, although Devlin does some superb detective work to make plausible suggestions of why this was. It provides a primer on the history of mathematics and numbers, pre-eminent Muslim scholars, pre-Renaissance Italian politics and business, medieval manuscript hunting and even the impact of the printing press.

It must be said, "there is maths in this book". This requires some engagement from the reader, and at least one chapter will require you to put aside any school-era squeamishness to see the examples that would have had such a big impact. But it's worth it. And I think Mr Jobs would have been flattered by the comparison. Although there is a little sting in the tale: in an era before the printing press, widespread copying of the original manuscript - and an explosion of copycat publications - ensured that Leonardo all but disappeared from the historical record, and his only recently (through painstaking computer-aided analysis) been returned to his rightful place.
Republished again in Italian only in the 1800s, with an English language translation only published in 2002, the rescuing of Fibonnacci’s reputation and standing in the development of maths has been a long time coming. With this book, there is a hope that a much wider audience will learn about - and appreciate - what Leonardo of Pisa achieved.