Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seven of the best for summer reading

If you are looking for a choice read (or two) over the bank holiday, Nicki reviews some of the most interesting reads that have come into the shop in the last weeks:

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst (PB, Picador, £8.99)

Alan Hollinghurst has a claim to be one of the best novelists writing today. He manages to write beautiful books that are not only worth the effort of reading at a detailed level, but his characters and plotting are all in tune at the same time.

His latest just out in paperback ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is an epic story of a group of characters centred around a poet and the house, Two Acres, where we all first meet Cecil, shortly to die in the First World War. 

As the story progresses, so does the century, and the fame and literary standing of the poet alters over time –  either in tune with the century, or up against it – a comment on the arbitrary nature of lasting literary reputation. The fortunes of the family similarly mark and reflect the changes of the twentieth century, which begins with house parties and closes with Cecil’s house, Corley, being turned into a school, Two Acres ‘carved into horrible flats’.

It’s big in scope, but also full of detailed nooks and crannies. Definitely a book to get lost in.

If you want to take a book on holiday that bears a good, long time to focus, this could be the perfect choice. It’s been compared to both ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and is probably one of the best books to be published this year.

You, Joanna Briscoe (PB, Bloomsbury, £7.99)

When Cecilia returns to her chaotic family home she is forced to confront many secrets she thought she had left behind. What starts as a story of tensions between a mother and daughter unfolds as a story of obsessive teenage love. 

With a taut plot, full of unexpected turns and memorable characters, the Dartmoor setting and hippy-commune childhood memories all create an atmospheric tale which delves deeply into a period of the characters' lives that resonates to the present. 

It all adds up to a taut and compelling story about how a child can misread people's intentions, but how it is never too late to put right mistakes of the past. A story with shifting viewpoints and secrets slowly revealed and understood – a great one for the beach bag.

Hotel at the corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford
(PB, Allison & Busby, £7.99)
Seattle and the internment of its Japanese residents as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy is at the heart of this story of clashing cultures; between Henry and the Japanese girl he falls in love with and will never forget.

The memories of Henry, are sparked by the opening of a long-forgotten cellar in the Panama Hotel (the hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet). In the cellar where are stored the belongings of dozens of Japanese families who, of course, never returned to claim them.

In lots of ways reminiscent of ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie, the main thrust of this ultimately uplifting story is one of how children can put aside the long-held prejudices of their ancestors and discover their differences are more than outweighed by what they have in common.

But essentially this is a love story – a story of first love in the summer, of jazz, and of Henry and Keiko, the girl he will never forget.

Sanctuary Line, Jane Urquhart (HB, Quercus, £16.99)

Entomologist Liz has returned to the land on the shores of Lake Erie to further her studies into the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly. 

Now 40, she returns to a family farm now crumbling and deserted. Why did the Butlers end up not being able to spread their wings, grow, and return strengthened year by year?

Full of symbolism, the writing meticulously paints a growing portrait of an idyll always shadowed by dark, with sadness never far away, as, through Liz’s scientific eyes we begin to dissect the truth she only ever saw before as a child. 

Liz’s butterflies may have to contend with sudden changes in weather, even changes in landscape. But she revisits the Butler family tragedy – having to contend with the much less predictable human frailties - the ability to make bad decisions or simply fall in love with the wrong person.

‘Sanctuary Line’, by Jane Urquhart, is the story of returning to your former family home to make sense of your past – and how humans can sometimes be more fragile than butterflies. It’s a lovely, engrossing read, beautiful, despite its sadness.

The novel is the seventh for Urquhart, one of Canada's most popular and respected authors and is wonderful for evoking atmosphere, exploring the importance of place, even if that place is overshadowed by a sense of loss.

Smut, Alan Bennett (PB, Profile Books, £6.99)

Alan Bennett’s comic dissection of middle England focuses on what happens behind bedroom doors in two stories about sex among the unsexy. Great if you fancy a chuckle.
Alan Bennett always manages to conjure up small domestic situations quite blissfully. The main character in ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson, the first of two novella-sized stories, features a widow looking for ways of bringing in a little extra cash.

The second story features a lot more conniving and far less innocence, with an interesting quintet of characters all going on as normal with a growing set of secrets and lies.

Smut is not a word I’ve come across a lot recently, but is the perfect title for Alan Bennett’s latest book which features unseemly goings-on, although discreetly behind bedroom doors.

Freeing Grace, Charity Norman (PB, Allen & Unwin, £7.99)

Baby Grace was abandoned by her father before she was born, her mother shortly afterwards, then her mother died. David and Leila are desperate for a baby, although not high on the adoption list, being older parents and of mixed race. 

So goes the set-up of this novel about parenthood and adoption.

There is lots of enjoy, not least Charity Norman’s writing, in this story about families and parenting. I liked her language – choice of words, ability to write in a funny and engaging way.

Grace’s dad, Matt, has belatedly decided to fight the adoption, although the fact that he is still at school, has a drug habit and no means of supporting himself and the child are, understandably, held against his chances of successfully calling a halt to the whole proceedings. Is he ‘good father’ material – and has he any chance of making it for the long haul and steering a baby through to adulthood? Or is it just a whim?

David is a patient, inner-city curate, his lovely wife’s had ‘plenty of practice at sticking on smiles since David took this job’. Lovely Leila finds time for everyone and even neatly sidestep’s David’s father’s drunken leering, and sneering from her mother-in-law.

Some of the main story is told through the eyes of Jake – a New Zealander with a passionate hatred of the idea of settling down, who is unwisely brought in to assist Matt with fighting the adoption. It all gets a bit too unlikely, but it’s grippingly told with plenty of poignant moments and charm.

Even so, there is a lot to like. Lots of thoughtful things about the expectation of what being a parent means when you hold a tiny, vulnerable new-born that you are responsible for. To finding you are still responsible for a big, hairy, ungrateful adult some years later who still demands unconditional love.

Island of Wings, Karin Altenberg (PB, Quercus, £7.99)

The island of St Kilda, 1830. Into a society still living the same ways since the days of the ancestors, comes single-minded minister, Neil MacKenzie and his new wife, Lizzie.

Neil is as full of missionary zeal as anyone going to convert native Africans to Christianity, but isn’t prepared for the discovery that such a barren part of the Empire is within his country’s own shores.

Lizzie is prepared to be fashionable and proud of her position, and is utterly unable to relate to the locals. She speaks no gaelic, finds their communal and harsh way of life far removed from her previous life on the mainland.

Swedish author, Karin Altenberg, in beautifully expressed prose (English is her second language) brings to life the shared poverty of the burrows where the islanders live, the floors full of accumulated filth that is shovelled out to fertilise the fields in spring. The hand-to-mouth lives, seabirds providing the most valuable natural resource, even to the fulmar oil to provide their lighting. No furniture and with no wood, only driftwood to provide nowhere near enough coffins.

Expect, like Lizzie, to get drawn, in as we hear how no trees can withstand the weather and the salt, and the seabirds provide a sparse but sustainable living on the far outreaches of a country that has already seen so much change.

As her husband decides that only change will bring these souls closer to God – sanitary housing, a system of crops, it is Lizzie who finds she is learning from the locals and considers who is really closer to God.


So - do you have any other recommends for new holiday reading? Post suggestions below (you should be able to do this without needing to log in!). Share a great holiday read just published...

Monday, May 28, 2012

So you want to visit the bookshop?

You've been reading the reviews, the event reports, and you think 'I wonder where Mostly Books actually is? It might be nice to drop in and take a look'.

Well, what with the upcoming Bun Throwing this Sunday, the open-air swimming pool and sprinklers recently opened (although a pump broke on the weekend apparently but they're fixing it as we speak), the newly-renovated County Hall looking particularly fab in the Sun, some great shopping and eating establishments to frequent and not forgetting the river, may be present the Mostly Abingdon pages of our website...

Now, we are actually closed for the Monday and Tuesday of the bank holidays (June 4/5). But we are just putting the finishing touches to a fab Summer events programme - and we're jolly excited I can tell you that the Olympic Torch will be coming right past our window at approximately 7.41am on July 10th...

Friday, May 25, 2012

3 4 Friday: Reading in the Sun

Given the recent dramatic turn-around with the weather, our three picks today have a distinctly 'summer reading' theme (not to mention great picks for bookgroups). All three new out in paperback...
Patrick Gale's ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ is the journey of a Cornish parish priest's life from youth to late middle age (but not written in that order) leaving plenty of room for suspense, shifting relationships and an ending both bitter and warm. Gale is a master storyteller, and you feel you know his characters from the inside. It’s all delivered with a perfect compassion and a lesson not to judge too soon. Recommended reading if you are heading off to Cornwall for a break...

Victoria Hislop’s ‘The Thread’ will doubtless find its way into plenty of beach bags and she returns to Greece for this tale that sweeps through decades of modern Greek history and the terrible events that conspire to keep her central love-story protagonists apart.  Her stories manage to turn tangled and controversial history into popular fiction, focusing on period romance and family relationships, so you don’t feel you are having a history lesson. But this particularly has a pleasingly complex story... 

Finally, 'beautiful and magical' is how Ellie sums up 'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern. Here's what she says: "I was really caught up in this story even though it's quite a slow unfurling of events. It's a really impressive and imaginative debut. The circus as we know it is transformed in this story where two magicians are tied together in a challenge at which the circus is at the centre. It's beautiful, dreamlike writing and I definitely recommend it - particularly if you want to read something a bit different and special. It's a book to savour. Enjoy!"

So - do you have any new summer reading you'd like to recommend? Thanks to Headline, we have a reading copy of 'The Book of Summer' to give away. Leave a recommend below - and we'll select one person in a draw on Monday to receive it...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Teen thrillers - reviews of I'll Be There and Dead Time

A teen romance isn’t usually the thing I find that keeps me turning the pages until late into the night. But there is something very special about ‘I’ll be there’ by Holly Goldberg Sloan – not least that what starts out as a straightforward romance quickly ramps up to being a tremendous thriller.

When Emily meets Sam they are instantly connected, even though it’s clear there is something very different about Sam. Different is good, different means he doesn’t swagger and isn’t full of stories about himself and doesn't insist on doing homework with sport on the TV.

Different because he always has his kid brother, Riddle, in tow – a kid small for his age, always obsessively drawing detailed pictures and not doing or saying a lot else.

When Emily’s family realise this is serious they want to meet Sam, want to meet his brother. Want to meet his parents . . . and that’s where the trouble starts.

The story is told both from Emily’s point of view, and Sam’s, so the reader is already well aware what the trouble is. Sam’s father is a career criminal, wanted in several states, always on the move. He doesn’t school them, he doesn’t even feed them. The two boys have made a life for themselves, the pair of them a tight unit, scrounging for food, making a bit of money by helping folk unload at the dump, keeping on the right side of their violent father.

Everything changes for Sam and Riddle when they start to join Emily’s family for home cooked meals . . . and Emily’s father wants to nurture Sam’s musical talent, it is just a matter of time until their unbalanced father finds out . . .

What follows is an exciting story of survival, of getting back to the people you love, no matter what it takes. It’s a really captivating, live-affirming and moving story, full of heart and surprises.

It’s great to see a teen love story that manages not to be simply about Boys or Tragic First Love, but is about the fact that love can take many forms, about families and how fate can sometimes turn on the smallest of things.

Who’d have thought a teen romance would be one of my favourite reads of the year so far (although I think  many adults may also sneakily like this love story with a heart of gold).

Anne Cassidy is one of the best-known names in teen thrillers and her latest, 'Dead Time', is centred around not just one mystery, but two - one of which looks set to continue in further books in this series.

When Rose rebels against her grandmother’s choice of private schooling and joins a college in a rough part of London, she knows she doesn’t fit in, but is determined to make it work, even when she is a key witness when a boy who has been bullying her is knifed

Her mother, who was in the police, disappeared five years ago and Rose is trying to live the sort of life she feels her mother would have chosen for her. So she half-heartedly agrees when the dead boy’s girlfriend appeals to her for help identifying his killer. 

Rose has also linked up recently with Joshua, whose father disappeared at the same time as Rose’s mother. Rose is surprised to learn that Joshua never believed the story of how the two disappeared and has been searching for them ever since, setting up websites and never giving up hope.

The twin investigations form a compelling and intricate plot that works on many levels. It’s not only a welcome modern-day thriller, with contemporary themes and strong main characters, it’s also a compelling mystery. 

The deaths aren’t dwelt on, but the mystery of both the college deaths and picking up the cold trail of Rose’s mother’s disappearance are edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Rose is in some ways not an engaging heroine, but her backstory and her bewilderment at trying to fit in with her cold grandmother, who had been estranged from her daughter at the time of her disappearance, is well handled.

It’s a well crafted and satisfying story that works on many levels. And with only a light romantic angle and not too much gruesome details about the murders, this could well appeal to those readers who have outgrown younger mystery stories – as well as the teen audience for which is has been written.

And finally, Kate Harrison, author of 'Soul Beach' - another cracking teen thriller about a social website that appears to be a portal to the dead - is putting together a survey about what we read and why.

Publishers don't do an awful lot of research and she has become interested in changes to our reading habits. If you have a few minutes and want to help to shape the future of reading, do go and answer the questions at

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lost Abbey of Abingdon

In 2010, we organised two walking tours of Abingdon with the Friends of Abingdon and Dr Simon Bradley, editor of the revised 'Berkshire' Pevsner guide. It's easily one of the best events we've ever done (and one we'd love to do again). For many who came on the tour, it opened our eyes to Abingdon's remarkable heritage and history.

Most famous is the Abbey buildings, and there is still a great deal about them that we don't know. In recent years the restoration of the Abbey Gardens (a Scheduled Ancient Monument) has rekindled interest in where the Abbey was, and informed speculation on the exact location and make-up of the Abbey buildings.

So this book is very timely, published right at the end of 2011: 'The Lost Abbey of Abingdon'. It's a little gem, only 34 pages, but contains a great deal of the latest information we have about the Abbey, much of it based on work done duration the Abbey Gardens restoration, and including 'geophys' readings and computer-generated reconstructions of the buildings.

The book also contains a fantastic montage image, which superimposes a building which was very similar to Abingdon Abbey (Wells Cathedral) onto the gardens, to give an impression of what the Abbey looked like.

Working at Mostly Books, we keep finding out lots of incredibly interesting things about the history of the town (mostly tantalising rumour, and stuff that cannot be corroborated - my personal favourite being that the A34 was originally planned to go the other side of Abingdon, but was changed at the last minute - anyone know any more about that?).

We recently came across this intriguing website, showing how one of the Abingdon Abbey buildings served as inspiration for Chicago's Glessner House, which inspired a young Frank Lloyd Wright. Fascinating - and would be great to know more...

Copies of 'The Lost Abbey of Abingdon' are in Mostly Books for £5 - or order with £3 UK delivery below:

Order 'The Lost Abbey of Abingdon' securely:

Friday, May 18, 2012

3 4 Friday: a face like glass, a robot's body and a book from a doll's house

This week we take a trip around the children's room, where we've selected three new children’s books that we really love. They are great as gifts or a treat for your little ones.

First up are two shop picks that we all loved as soon as we got them out of the box, ‘Make It! Rocket’ and ‘Make It! Robot’ by Mike Brownlow.
They’re fab new stories that are perfect for children 5+. Not only do you get a lovely story about Hugo and his family of inventors but there are press out pieces inside so you can build your own rocket or robot too – we love it!

With all the bunting and flags going up around Abingdon, we're all feeling very patriotic, so Julia has selected a Jubilee gem, ‘J. Smith - A Fairy Story’, a miniature book reproduced from the Queen’s Doll’s House Library.

In 1922, various authors were commissioned to create miniature books for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls house at Windsor Castle. Over 200 were created - all about the size of a matchbox - and Walker Books have now re-created one of these books especially for the Queen’s Jubilee.
A story of a fairy stranded in 1920s London, the book is beautifully made with a satin-like cover and guilt edge pages, it’s a delightful book for any child to treasure. Come in and have a look on our Jubilee and Olympics display at the front of the shop...

Finally, one of Ellie’s favourite children’s book this year, and just out in hardback, is Frances Hardinge’s latest stand-alone novel for children 9+, ‘A Face Like Glass’.

When 5-year-old Neverfell turns up in Grandible’s cheese tunnels, he's surprised that someone has been able to evade his very extensive defences - and shocked by her face. When 7 years later she suddenly finds herself in the 'outside' world of Caverna - a mass of tunnels extending up, down, and back on itself, where plots and assassinations are part of everyday life, she finds that her face is more dangerous than she thought - a face like glass whose thoughts and emotions everyone can read. And in order to discover the truth about her past and escape, it will only get more dangerous...this is what Ellie says:

"A riveting read, Frances Hardinge creates a truly imaginative and exciting world. I really love Frances’ books, which are all so different and thrilling I can’t put them down. I also recommend trying ‘Fly By Night’ and ‘Twilight Robbery’ if you’re after a paperback, which follow the feisty and impetuous Mosca Mye and her friend Eponymous Clent..."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The MB Interview: Eliza Graham, author of 'The History Room'

Eliza Graham has been a big favourite amongst our customers since ‘Playing with The Moon’ was published in 2007 (not that long after we opened). That book was published by Macmillan New Writing in June 2007, and was a finalist in 2008’s Book To Talk About award, voted by readers. She has since published Restitution (2008) and Jubilee (2010).

With the publication of her latest book, 'The History Room', we were delighted to chat with Eliza and find out a bit more about her latest book...

MB: Eliza, it’s very exciting for us – and our customers – to have been able to follow you since your debut, and 'The History Room' is now your fourth novel. Can you tell us a bit about it? 

EG: Mark and Nicki, thank you so much for letting me visit the Mostly Books blog!

The story concerns Meredith Cordingley who returns to Letchford, the family home: an apparently idyllic school run by her Czech emigre father. She's escaping a marriage that's collapsed following the return of her wounded soldier husband from Afghanistan. But if she believes Letchford will provide a tranquil refuge, she's in for a shock. Within days of the new school year starting, a disturbing prank is played in the history classroom. Troubled youngsters could be the cause of the trouble, but Meredith starts to suspect that old family secrets are the cause of the disturbances.

What readers seem to love about your writing is the way you weave in themes of how incidents in the past, particularly the war, cast long shadows across time and different generations. Would it be true to say that these themes come to the fore in your latest book? 

Yes, all my books weave in and out of the past and present. I’ve always been fascinated by how events occurring decades ago can continue to affect, for better and for worse, future generations. Most families, I suspect, have wondered about things that happened earlier in the lives of their parents or grandparents. Perhaps someone finds a family group photograph and wonders about the identity of the woman in the back row in the smart hat. Or comes across a wedding certificate suggesting that a 1920s bride might already have been expecting a baby.

Perhaps we’re more open these days, but the generation who came of age during the traumas of the early and mid-twentieth century were often people who were encouraged to ‘move on’ and not dwell on the past. In some cases, this can be wise advice. But many people who are now elderly must have seen some very shocking things in their lives: poverty, appalling injury, violent death. Not necessarily only in wartime, either. A close family member of mine lost a child at birth in the twenties. I don't think she ever really talked about it for the rest of her life. Some of these sad events must, as you say, cast an emotional shadow. 

And it’s not just tragedies that can ripple on through the generations: I believe that periods of intense joy in people’s lives can also affect not only them, but their children and grandchildren. I am very interested in the intersection between an emotional event in the present and something that might have happened fifty years ago to the same character or to someone else close to them. 

In 'The History Room', your characters have very strong emotional feelings towards the main setting, which is both school but also cherished family home. Was this idea suggested by a real place? It would be interesting to know where this idea came from. 

The school in 'The History Room' isn’t based on a particular school but over the last few years I’ve visited a few rather lovely looking schools when my own children have been playing matches or involved in other activities. Some of these schools look more like country clubs than educational establishment. You wonder whether anything bad could ever happen in such idyllic surroundings. But, of course, ‘life’ happens everywhere. And children and teenagers are the same: for better or worse, wherever they are at school. I don’t actually know of any schools that are still run by the founding family, though, but no doubt some still exist. 

In all of your books, war – and its effects on individuals and families – looms in the background. Past books have dealt with incidents from the Second World War but in ‘The History Room’ one of the characters has served in Iraq. Is this something you are interested in personally, or have you had to research whilst writing the book?

We live quite near to Wootton Bassett and I used to see the planes bringing back the dead coming in to land at RAF Lyneham and would feel a shadow falling. Sadly this was a subject all too easy to research, as the newspapers were, at one stage, featuring stories about wounded and dead soldiers on an almost weekly basis.

There were very good articles elsewhere on the web on the subject of artificial limbs and other medical and psychological issues arising from blast injury. I also found some of the material on NHS websites and that of Headley Court, the rehabilitation centre, very helpful indeed. 

Agatha Christie was fond of wartime incidents in the crafting of some of her mysteries – the opportunity for disruption, confusion, etc. ‘The History Room’ – more perhaps than your earlier books - seems to contain a bit of a hint towards the country house mystery (you may not agree with that!). Are you influenced by crime and mystery stories, and if so – what authors have influenced you? 

I love crime and mystery stories and read lots of them. I’ve just, for example, finished Philip Kerr’s latest: PRAGUE FATALE, which includes a country house mystery set in occupied Prague, the suspects including Heydrich, of all people. The book I’m writing at the moment is perhaps also influenced by that ‘crucible’ sense: characters pushed together within a particular space, where they are placed under a degree of stress, causing them to react in interesting ways.

I also like Robert Goddard’s books and am fascinated at how he does his weaving between past and present. Like everyone else, it seems, I have now read quite a bit of Scandinavian crime fiction and watched it on television. I’m currently rereading THE DARKEST ROOM, a novel by Swedish author Johan Theorin. 

As you write a book, is it the mystery that you start with, or do you have a setting, or characters in mind? I can imagine that this is a chicken and egg question, but what would you say were the main drivers when you write? 

I often find it’s a film-like image running through my mind: or a strong emotion, perhaps loss or a link with the past when I am in a particular landscape or by an old building. I have an urge to explore what is making me feel like this. When I worked in London I was once based in a particular part of the New Oxford Street/ Holborn area that made me feel unsettled every time I walked out for a sandwich.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s book about London taught me that there’d once been a gallows near the office, and that the building was on the site of a maze of streets infamous for violence and crime. Before that it had been a monastic hospital. So much suffering: and, for me, at least, a sense of unsettledness seemed to live on. I have written about that part of London and its history in two books of mine that never made it to publication but which were very important in helping me find a writer’s voice.

Your previous book Jubilee – another first-rate mystery story set across the generations – was very influenced by where you live, the area around White Horse Hill, near the Ridgeway and the (old Berkshire) Downs. In fact, the countryside was almost a character in that novel. You live in a particularly beautiful part of the country, and I wondered whether its influence has crept into your latest book? 

It is lovely where we live and there are some mentions of the local countryside in 'The History Room' but it doesn’t figure quite as much. In that respect, it is more contained and perhaps claustrophobic in feeling. 

Having listened to you speak at events we have done in the shop, I know how important the ‘Books To Talk About’ awards were back in 2008. I know we have writers who read the blog, and I wonder if you could tell us a little of how your writing journey has developed since then. How has the publishing world changed in five years, and how have you changed as a writer? 

Books To Talk About was a real boost to my confidence when I was just starting out. I was very lucky.

The changes in the last five years have occurred so speedily that I think everyone is still walking around a little dazed. We have gone from very few authors being published in e-format to a vast amount number doing this: off their own backs, taking full charge of all aspects of the process. It changes the relationship for everyone. Writers used to have to wait for years to be validated by a gate-keeper: usually an agent, sometimes a publisher. It could be infuriating to have to go through the laborious process. For some people that has been wonderful. For writers in my genre, I’m not so sure. We don’t have the same online fan forums who might turn a book viral. It can be very hard to differentiate yourself on a very crowded e-bookshelf.

Print sales are still the most important for me, though I have seen increased e-book sales over the last year. I am still more than happy to be traditonally published, with people behind me who understand sales and marketing and who are responsible for editing, copy-editing and proof-reading my books.

On the other hand, I’ve now finished my last book on contract for my publisher, Pan Macmillan, so who knows what will happen next. 

Finally, we always have five quick questions that we ask children’s author when we talk to them – so we’ve adapted a few of them right at the end of this interview!

1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

I am writing something provisionally called FAIRFLEET. It’s about another old house: this time one to which a group of young Jewish Kindertransport boys travel in the 1930s. One of the boys has a guilty secret. Seventy years later, a troubled woman comes to the house to nurse him on his deathbed. Her past and his are bound together in a way that emerges as they get to know one another. 

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given? 

Read your work aloud! 

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer? 

It can be lonely, particularly during the winter. And it can take a long time to be paid — hopeless if you’re trying to budget. 

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work? 

I keep the cocoa industry afloat! To make it slightly healthier, I do also take a brisk walk every afternoon with our dog. Walking is good for making ideas flow again. 

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough? 

Being taken up by Macmillan New Writers with Playing with the Moon after years of not getting anywhere! 

Thanks to Eliza for talking to us - and we have signed copies of 'The History Room' at Mostly Books. Just email us if you would like a signed copy put aside...

Friday, May 11, 2012

3 4 Friday: different reads - Caleb's Crossing, River and Smoke and The Coincidence Engine

This Friday, the staff have selected three very different - but nevertheless brilliant - books, new out in paperback, either for you to treat yourself, for your bookgroup - or to buy someone who loves new fiction.

First up is one of Ellie's current favourites, 'Caleb's Crossing' by author Geraldine Brooks. Here's Ellie's thoughts:

"It's an evocative story about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, which celebrates his truly amazing achievements. Based on fact, the characters and their struggles are brought to life by the fictional Bethia, whose own innocence and beliefs contrast beautifully with the events that occur. The depth of Geraldine's research stands out, particularly in her portrayal of these individual struggles and the conflict on the larger scale between the Native American medicine men and the English ministers. The relationship between Caleb and Bethia movingly explores the boundary between the two cultures and the inevitable difficulties, even between friends. I wasn't sure about this book from the description on the back, but it really was fantastic and didn't disappoint. It was an engaging and moving story and a truly wonderful read."

Next is one of Nicki's picks, the latest book in paperback from Bengali Indian author Amitav Ghosh, 'River of Smoke'. Here's Nicki's thoughts:

"Ghosh is probably most famous for his novel The Glass Palace, a sweeping historical novel that takes in issues of colonialism, social changes and nationhood (aside from a nice line in wry Anglo-English wit!). 'River of Smoke' is the sequel to 'Sea of Poppies' (although you don't need to read the first book to appreciate this). Set against the backdrop of the Opium Wars, this is Ghosh at his best: research lightly worn, a cracking plot, and a cast of characters who make fresh what is an area of history that we may think we know well. Ignore the cheesy Daily Mail quote on the cover...this is just a great story!"

And finally Mark has picked a book that is definitely 'one of his'. 'The Coincidence Engine' by Sam Leith is a  short, ideas-packed satirical thriller set in the world of probability, national security and hokey Americana. It's a debut novel by journalist Sam Leith, and whilst it has its flaws, it's a wonderful fresh debut that's a lot of fun. When highly improbable things start happening across America, it's up to the Department of the Extremely Improbable (DEI) to work out what this new threat to national security is, and they use all the available paranoid state apparatus to investigate what Donald Rumsfeld was probably referring to with his infamous "unknown unknowns" speech. We like debut authors at Mostly Books - and Sam is definitely one to watch...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Meaning. What? The Information by James Gleick - review

In the Summer of 1949, a young electrical engineer took a pencil, a sheet of paper and drew a line from bottom to top. He marked off a number of sections, and labelled the axis "bits storage capacity". At the bottom was a single 'bit' , and this rose in powers of ten to the largest collection of information he could think of: The Library of Congress at 100 trillion bits.

His name was Claude Shannon, and at about ten to the power five, he wrote "genetic constitution of man".

As far as we can tell, this was the first time anyone had stated that the information required to 'build' a human could be measured. The discovery of DNA lay several years in the future.

Whilst he may have been four orders of magnitude out, it was still a sublime moment of discovery, and this is one moment in this remarkable man's life that author James Gleick makes the central character in 'The Information', a tour-de-force of popular science writing that seeks nothing less than to tell the entire history of the Information Age.

Gleick weaves Claude's story into a history of communication 'technology' which - until relatively recently - was simply the struggle to process, package and send more information, faster and more securely than ever before. Starting with the compelling stories of the African drumming networks (with their highly evolved language, redundancy and error checking), and taking in the history of dictionaries, Charles Babbage and the Telegraph along the way, Gleick skillfully takes us through the waypoints of Information Technology as knowledge transmission taxis along for several thousand years before suddenly - and spectacularly - going exponential.

The aftermath of this explosion is one we are grappling with today - as we daily struggle to cope with emails, blogs, tweets and status updates - not to mention a variety of media intrusions, the background information noise of a society clamouring for our attention.

Gleick - along with perhaps John Gribben and a couple of other science writers - is a master of the art of science writing, following Einstein's recommendation to 'make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler'. As the vast list of references is testament to, Gleick has done heroic levels of research to pull together the key historical moments in the story, and does so in a way that is delightfully readable whilst demanding some intellectual effort (the best type of writing, IMHO).

Gleick picks (and tells) his stories brilliantly. The Quixotic French Telegraph is a compelling tale of human ingenuity, the power of dictatorial patronage, hubris and cruel obsolescence. The story of Charles Babbage seems fresh (even for someone who is very familiar about his Difference Engine), but for me the story of Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) is the standout one. Her fierce intellect grasped the potential of Babbage's machine on an intuitive level, and though it remained largely in Babbage's imagination, through very touching letters between them, she theorised the need for algorithms and programming languages, and developed the rudiments of computer programming. She's a true British female pioneer and one deserving of wider recognition.

But Shannon is the undoubted star. He shares lunchbreaks with Alan Turing in 1943, and although secrecy meant they were unable to discuss specific projects, they swapped tantalising theories as they ate.

As Gleick moves in the 1970s and 80s, however, there is growing unease about the direction in which the research is taking. The earliest worries about 'information overload' appear (a warning concerning the ease of copying, or forwarding, email appears in 1983). But a far subtler - and darker - concern was unwittingly sown by Shannon himself in his original work. Concerned only with the transmitter, receiver and potential noise in the system, Shannon himself consciously sought to remove meaning from the equation - it's all about accuracy and efficiency, bandwidth and 'Shannon Limits'.

Fair enough, Shannon was an engineer, and had to generalise. But when Dawkins appears with his Selfish Gene, characterising human beings as nothing more than carriers of genetic information, the stripping away of meaning, the reduction of humanity as simply by-products of replication strategies, Information seems to have a dark side.

Genes are one thing, memes are quite another. Little capsules of information - a tune, a snippet of text, an idea, proverbs, chain letters and email hoaxes. Gleick is liable to leave you seeing these little artificial lifeforms everywhere, and I was left thinking that, somewhere, there must be a mimetic theory of consumerism, in which the 'stuff' of life is little more than physical memes filling our understairs cupboard and filling up landfills.

Gleick's conclusions are, oddly, a bit lightweight. He seems to dismiss the risks of information overload, with some justification, as humans seem to be remarkably good at 'chunking' - grouping together information for summarising and processing, and that will probably dig us out of the current hole. But I couldn't help reading something slightly more sinister - that humans seem to find transmitting information at some level addictive, because there are rewards built in as we are co-opted by our genes to replicate at all costs.

And that's certainly a sobering though next time you feel a frisson of excitement over a retweet or a repin...

(What do you think about Information Overload? Permanent or temporary? Post your thoughts below, and we will select one of you to receive a free copy of The Information by the end of play on Monday, 14 May.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Reports of 'Unrest' at local schools: Michelle Harrison in Abingdon

Michelle Harrison always starts off school talks 'fessing up about the fact that she writes fairy books. This may or may illicit a chuckle or two from some of the boys in the audience, but, after explaining that her fairies are not of the 'pink' variety, but of an altogether darker hue, she goes on to talk about the dark side of myths and legends, and our need to be frightened. From then on, things get a lot scarier and there isn't much chuckling at all...
On Friday we welcomed Michelle to Abingdon to talk about her new young adult novel Unrest (which we reviewed here)

Over lunch, Michelle spoke to pupils from Larkmead and St Helen and St Katharine. The first extract she read involves the protagonist, Elliot, and a seriously scary episode of 'sleep paralysis', something that is truly terrifying if it happens to you, and for which Michelle got the idea from the experiences of her sister.

(honestly, sleep paralysis sounds horrible, and if you want to put yourself in the mood for what Elliot goes through in the book, take a look at this Guardian article here - I also found it very interesting that great works of art have resulted from the experience).
Michelle explained that she never always wanted to be a writer, and instead studied as an illustrator. But after starting with short stories in her teens - and with her love of the supernatural and horror - the writing slowly took over.

It took her four years to get an agent, and a further year to get a publisher to take her first book, so she certainly served her apprenticeship in her route to being published. In fact, talking of horror, she did make the process of editing (and in particular, copy editing) sound particularly awful - but the result is definitely been worth it.

In the afternoon we zoomed round the corner to John Mason School.
Here - after talking to students and giving another reading from the book - Michelle took questions about film rights, whether she would ever write a sequel, and a very involved question about 'The Exorcist'...
Thanks very much to Michelle, particularly as it was the final day of a gruelling tour around the UK.
Unrest deserves to do very well, and come Monday, Michelle has perhaps the most terrifying experience that any author can face, that of the blank sheet of paper - as she begins her next book. We attempted to find out a little bit more...

Five Question With...Michelle Harrison's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

I'm about to start another teen novel (no title yet!) but this time telling a story from the girl's point of view. It's going to be a contemporary, very creepy tale in the same sort genre as Unrest.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given? 

Get it written, get it right. Can't remember who said that, but what it means is: get it down on paper first and then get it 'right' afterwards.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing about being a children's writer is that you get to make things up all day long. The worst thing is anything to do with paperwork (e.g. accounts) - boring!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work? 

Millions of cups of tea! No, I can pretty much write anywhere, but prefer to write on my laptop - so basically as long as I have my laptop to write on, that's fine. However, cutting off the Internet is pretty much essential!

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Getting an agent without a doubt. Once I got an agent, everything started to happen.

Friday, May 04, 2012

3 4 Friday: Gorgeousness, Sportiness and the Natural World

Over the last week, as well as a veritable abundance of new titles, we've also been doing a lot of changing around of the shop (what our American friends might term 'remodelling'). So if you haven't been in for a while, we've chosen three titles from three sections of the shop to showcase the changes...

Firstly, we've brought together gifts, crafts, cooking, parenting and books for very little ones into a 'lifestyle and home' corner - and very gorgeous it looks too (though we say so ourselves) under the new lighting. This should also make it a tad easier for parents (and grandparents) with well as looking jolly nice.

Stand-out title(s) here - the Design Museum's fiftieth anniversary publications that highlight landmark examples of design in areas such as cars, hats, chairs, shoes, bags and dresses.
Superbly produced from the Design Musem archives, these are both excellent source books for designers - but also fascinating social commentaries of the consumer age.

We now have a dedicated table for all things Olympic, and inevitably many of us will get swept up by the whole thing, even if we don't find ourselves up at 3am watching re-runs of Fencing (guilty as charged for one member of staff!).

As well as some excellent titles on the history of the games and famous olympians, one of our favourite titles has to be the sublime "How To Watch The Olympics" by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton.
For any armchair olympics fan - and indeed, if you've been lucky enough to get tickets to an event that perhaps you are not fully up-to-speed on - this is a cribbers delight, a book which instantly allows you to become an expert on almost the entire games.

This is the handbook to have next to the chair for the duration of the games...but particularly for young sporting fans, do come in and see our other selection for young readers who may suddenly want to compete on the Modern Pentathalon!

Finally, the front of the shop is now the 'get out there!' section - local walking, interest, travel, nature and sport. Either stand in front of our selection and start the jumping jacks, or else pick out a few key titles to look at:

Bottom right you might just catch sight of the new-in-paperback 'Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed' by SImon Barnes.

This is a delight, a book that teaches you not just about birdsong, but about tuning into nature - the science, beauty and importance of the natural world where you live.

And finally, congratulations to author Teri Terry, whose debut YA novel 'Slated' was published this week. As promised - here it is on face out on our YA shelves...

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tudor charmer who moved to the dark side: Harriet Castor and VIII

If you were going to write a novel based on the life of Henry VIII you’d probably have plenty of good ideas where to get some inspiration – after all, we all know about Henry VIII, right?

You might begin with history books (lots of research). Looking at lots of portraits painted of the period. Yes. Good plan.

But would you think of . . . the Star Wars films? Darth Vadar? A biography of Elvis Presley?

Harriet Castor’s fearless historical novel, ‘VIII’ is told in the first person through the eyes of Henry (Hal) himself, allowing us to walk in Henry’s shoes. It gives us a view of a gifted and handsome young man with high ideals who becomes increasingly morally corrupt.

In a talk to the Oxford Children’s Book Group on April 30, Harriet Castor, who has a lifelong fascination with tudor history, explained the long journey she had before being convinced she had something genuinely new to say, and tackling her novel.

The result is a gripping narrative that many won’t recognise as the story of Henry VIII. In making this a fresh novel for teens, Harriet Castor has managed to convince us why a brilliant youth, noted for his sporting prowess and his looks, was to turn into the figure we all recognise.

It was the psychology that intrigued the author, who aimed to write something that succeeded by being historically accurate, but not a history lesson disguised as a novel, or even a novel that only people interested in tudor history would read.

What we are given is a novel that shows us what we find in common that helps us understand people living 500 years ago, rather than focusing on all the elements that were very different about their lives.

‘The image we have of him comes only from the last fifteen years of his life, but despite the huge gap of 500 years I felt there was much we could relate to about the huge pressure he was under and all the seeds that were sown in his teenage years,’ says Castor.

The story focuses on Henry’s teenage years – the formative part of his life and is, at its heart, a mythic fallen angel story – a version that resonates with many current teen reads.

It’s an incredible novel not just because of managing to say something new about a well worn period of history, but because readers will be able to relate to the demons that plagued Henry and get swept up in understanding what turned a teenage boy full of promise into the paranoid tyrant everyone knows from the history books, as all his early promise steadfastly remains unfulfilled.

As well as being a cracking book and something different for teens, the ease with which she writes about the period means it will also appeal to anyone who loves Tudor history, or wants to discover another side to a figure we all think we know.

Five questions with . . . Harriet Castor's writing life

Harriet has written more than 40 books, getting her first book published when she was just twelve (surely got to be some sort of a record) – Like many children, she had hand-written (and illustrated) a story about a cat. Only she not only persuaded her mother to send it to a publisher, but the publisher was looking for just that sort of simple story to publish as an early reader . . .  Her latest book is her first for teens – 'VIII'.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

A series of two books about two sisters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

Just get on with it.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is that the audience is so fresh and open. The worst is probably that some people tend to presume that you do it because you can’t write for adults –  they think it is the easier option, rather than that you might have taken a positive choice.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

A thermos of strong coffee. I have to make it myself and it has to be quite right. If it is cold I also wear my dressing gown which I put on over my clothes. I apparently need to create a lot of mess and apparently have to have an extremely messy desk which becomes a mess on the floor. By the time I have drunk the coffee it is about lunchtime and I have had enough.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Having ‘Fat Puss’ published at the age of twelve.  I never had to go through the experience of years and years of trying to get published as it meant what I wrote got read.