Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The bookgroup discusses: Sisters Brothers

Mark's preamble: Before opening Mostly Books, I would never have thought of joining a bookgroup. Yet running a bookgroup, which has met every Thursday at 7pm almost continually for the last six years, has been one of the highlights of my bookselling life.

Aside from the camaraderie, the cut and thrust of debate and the sometimes ‘robust’ opinions that fly back and forth, to watch two people, both equally well-read, knowledgable and passionate about books, have two completely different opinions about a ‘good’ book allows you to move past your own prejudices about a title or genre. It teaches you that the way you read a book – all at once, in chunks, when you are tired, or down, or busy, or if you come to a book with high expectations, or even no expectations – all influence how you will enjoy it. It also teaches you tolerance about books that you may not ‘like’, to examine your own feelings about reading. It allow you to enjoy a book on different levels – rather like a bag of chips versus a gourmet meal (and it’s nice to do both occasionally).


At the risk of getting all pretentious, I think it helps you gain the deeper truths that exist in all fiction, building self-knowledge and giving you confidence that different opinions are equally valid. Not bad for a bunch of different people sitting around having a chat about a book...


Anyway – here’s some insights into February’s book – Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers...I’ve tried not to include any spoilers, but as a general health and safety warning – ‘spoiler alert’ if you read on...

Plot summary: The Sisters Brothers is a novel about two brothers - Eli and Charlie Sisters - hired gunmen, who are making their way to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, at the behest of the mysterious 'Commodore'. En route, and often through discussions between the two very different brothers, a change starts to come over Eli as he starts to question the 'business' that they are in...

The first thing to get past was the violence. There are some sensitive souls in the group, and even I blenched a bit at a particularly gruesome bit of violence (involving someone’s skull) at the start of the book. But most of the group were surprised at how much they enjoyed the novel – or at least were compelled to keep reading – despite this.


In fact, we did have quite a discussion about the level of violence in the wider society at the time the book is written (the American Gold Rush) and this led on to America, violence and guns in general. I had printed out
an interview that author Patrick deWitt had done for Granta, and he feels this was never a point he was trying to make in the book, but does seem to come up outside America – but never in the country itself.

Most agreed that the quality of prose was very high – and that the plot was gripping. Most were struck by the ‘filmic’ qualities of the book – and a few directors names came up: The Coen Brothers and David Lynch. Dewitt has obviously acknowledged his debt to movies – there’s even a couple of ‘intermissions’ in the book – and again, it is interesting that the book apparently grew out of a series of dialogues between key characters that he wrote when starting the book.


The way the book was typeset even reminded us of a film script at times.


We were searching for what books may have served as inspiration (in interviews, authors can sometimes provide a list of inspirations which leave out a main title!). Suggestions included
Of Mice and Men (Eli, the younger brother, reminding one of the group of Lenny), Candide (the heightened reality, even surreality, of some of the settings), The Ned Kelly Gang and even the representation of Eli as a male Fanny Hill: someone who had a dawning realisation of the moral problems of the life he led and thus setting out to make changes.

For those that really enjoyed the book, however, the heart of it was the relationship between the two brothers, and even though there was some doubt about the ‘literary descriptions’ as seen through Eli’s eyes (given his background), the voice of Eli was good, and the relationship well characterised and very enjoyable. Most of us really enjoyed the humour (once we could push past the violence) and we dwelled for some time on just how deep the novel was supposed to go beyond just the story. I was very taken with the number of metaphors in the book (environmental destruction, the ‘Commodore’ representing political corruption, and even Eli himself as a very modern man – with his tooth powder and desire for ‘light bites’ at meal time, his care for animals). There was even a signifier to the general state of society –the unnamed weeping man – but ultimately the novel delivers a large dollop of redemption by the end.


(Nicki’s bookgroup also read the book for their bookgroup, and one of the points discussed there was the skill in which Eli ‘resolves’ the problem with the Commodore at the end, without the bloodshed and recriminations that might have resulted had his brother taken the lead. This is Eli’s triumph in working out a different path).


Ultimately Eli represents a moral force, and his influence and power, partly because of what he thinks, partly the actions he takes – grow as the book proceeds. Everyone saw this as a very American book (the end point of going home to ‘Mom’, the desire to be self-reliant), were themes that perhaps didn’t seem so important to British readership.


One of the group made the comment that some of the descriptive pieces seemed ‘imported’ from elsewhere (such as the San Francisco harbour scene, with the boats abandoned due to the Gold Rush) and the opinions of the group ranged from ‘didn’t really get into it’ through to ‘one of the best reads we’ve ever done’. But overall, a very positive response and a book that pushed several people out of their comfort zone.


Interestingly, in the DeWitt interview, the author himself talks about getting bored with books if you just read the same things all the time. “I’ve since learned to mix up my reading. The moment it begins to feel like homework, I head for something more welcoming”. I can recommend he join a bookgroup...


The Sisters Brothers
is by Patrick deWitt, and published by Granta Books, and is available for £7.99 from Mostly Books, or as an eBook here.

(Are you looking for recommendations for yourself or for your own bookgroup? Would you like to have us recommend something as a gift? For more information, take a look here).

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Fine Bookselling Evening

What do a group of booksellers talk about when they get together for an evening?

Would you reckon it would be a discussion of fine writing and the even finer points of bookselling? Or would they want to chat about fine wine and websites? Would they just eat a lot of cake?

Last night Mark and I headed into Chipping Norton as the guests of Patrick and Polly, who run the fabulous Jaffe & Neale Bookshop & Cafe, for a gathering of the region’s booksellers in their beautiful shop.

Booksellers from as far away as Berks and Bucks had travelled for the evening and the opportunity to have a natter about the current state of bookselling, how wonderful our customers are, swap recommends for great titles, have a moan about a few things (no prizes for guessing some of the subjects that came up) and generally agree what fun bookselling is, although tough going at the moment.

It was a chance to catch up on (and praise) the hard work the Booksellers Association does and the great support we all get from our suppliers. Of particular interest were developments ahead of June’s Independent Booksellers Week - and some of the exclusives being prepared by some of the big publishers for independents.

We all seem pretty much agreed that modern bookselling isn’t just about finding great books to recommend to our customers (although that is still the heart of the business). But excellent customer service, schools advice services, events, social media, even e-books, are all things everyone was striving to be able to deliver in a tough economic climate and to be able to really make a difference.

It was a chance to swap best practice on everything from computer systems to getting good local PR, and to come away with plenty of inspiration of how to take all the great ideas everyone else is doing and make our bookshops even better than before. Everyone seemed enthused to find ways to ride out the recession and come out still being able to share great books with enthusiastic readers, even in a few years’ time.

It sounds like we might put together a ‘bookshop trail’ to both celebrate the uniqueness of our own shops, but also to encourage folk to go and take a look at what other booksellers in the region are offering.

And there were even some tentative discussions about a potential ‘bookseller swap’, where booksellers spend a few days in each other’s shops to learn what they do differently.


There were also some extremely interesting - and at times heated - discussions about eBooks. It was extremely important to realise that we are all to some extent considering not whether we should offer ebooks, but simply how to.

It was a truly inspiring evening, so thank you to everyone who came along ready to share, to Meryl from the Booksellers Association who helped set everything up, and particularly to Patrick and Polly for their wonderful hospitality. (Particularly the raspberry and apple sponge, which Mark wholeheartedly recommends).

I think we offered to host the next one in the summer, so the main thought I came away with was nothing to do with bookselling – it was where am I going to get that much cake??

Fighting over William Boyd – and the lost art of plotting

There are not many books that I read that I pass on to Mark. (I used to try, but the sight of all those books I’d love mouldering unread was too dispiriting).
But there are a few new authors I think he will like that he will find snuck onto his reading pile.
And there are a few that we fight over.
So thank you Bloomsbury for giving us an advance proof of ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ by William Boyd (definitely one of the perks of the job). Particularly as I was able to read it first.
Of course it meant I was up to past midnight clinging on to the tense last few chapters, desperate to know how it all ended, but not wanting the book to finish.
So what it is about William Boyd that makes him such a must-read author? Both a commercial and a literary success? And one who appeals to both men and women?
The book opens in Vienna just before the First World War. Lysander Rief is staring at a rather raunchy poster advertising a new opera.
What I love about the opening is not just the fact that the monster on the poster is described as ‘squamous’ and the fact that I am rather nerdy and like authors who use words that have me scurrying for the dictionary (squamous = scale-like).
But I also really admire the fact that the poster is a key motif of probably four separate parts of the story. But the poster is dropped in, just like that at the beginning, almost as if it is irrelevant.
I suppose ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ could be described as a thriller. But not the breathless, plunge-through-the-pages story that you have instantly forgotten the minute you have closed the cover.
I liked the fact that Rief doesn’t start out as a hero. He’s an amiable, if not particularly enviable character. Easily led astray by bad women and stronger men.
‘Waiting for Sunrise’ is the story of an English actor who gets caught up in wartime and behaves in surprising ways and finally unmasks a devious traitor in a double, treble even quadruple bluff.
It’s also the journey of a decent (though vaguely louche) individual into becoming quite a brilliant spy who is also accepting of casual and regular violence.
I like that the twists and turns of the plot – the unexpected outcomes and shootings, friendships and betrayals, but that all of it woven into a tapestry so that each strand builds on what has gone before.
The poster, Vienna, an incident in Vienna that leaves Rief in debt to the British government, his ability to speak German. The outbreak of war. It all leads through to a brilliant conclusion, and I do wonder if part of his appeal is the fact that he takes the trouble with such sublime plotting. Plotting seems to be rather a lost art.
I love the way he writes about flesh and blood women and the fact of women often being his downfall (including his mother). Plus Boyd even takes the time of detailed description of the clothes of all these femmes fatales. They are interesting, rather than for decorative purposes. I like that.
There is a strong cast of supporting folk – army folk looking blandly similar in their uniforms, but bringing with them all their baggage from their former civilian lives and all having their own hidden agendas to play out.
And I did like the fact that by the end Rief could be considered to have behaved better than one might have expected, proved himself to be resourceful, brave and clever. But he also cannot sleep at night due to one incident he can’t forget, when two ‘innocent’ Germans were killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Rief was ‘just following orders’.
Perhaps I like Boyd’s writing because he has a rare ability never to tell the same story twice. ‘An Ice-Cream War’ ‘Stars and Bars’ ‘Any Human Heart’.
Perhaps it’s just that he does every element of storytelling just so well. Perhaps it just adds up to the fact that there is more than a spark of genius in Boyd’s writing. To craft something with a suspenseful, though thought-provoking story, a cast of well-fleshed characters and a truly zingy plot and to bring them all together. Reading William Boyd definitely feels like you are listening to the whole orchestra.


To get a copy of 'Waiting for Sunrise' with free UK delivery - please click below:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Comfort reading in times of crisis

At times one is in need of some comfort reading and I do rather turn to a mystery story.

I recently looked out my very depleted pile of Reginald Hills (lent out – almost every one), so to be totally indulgent I decided to buy an old favourite (this is easy if you own a bookshop). Being able to choose any of them, I spent some time reacquainting myself with ‘Bones and Silence’.

Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe stories have never seemed to have quite achieved the devoted followings so many detective writers enjoy, but they are my favourites, so I was very saddened to hear when Reginald Hill died earlier this year.

The two main characters are not instantly lovable, but few cops in detective fiction are. But they are unique in being a genuine double act, not just a chief and assistant.

With long-serving characters you need time to get to know them and I have been a fan for a long time. But it is the plots that I particularly enjoy. I hope Hill will be remembered as the master of the oh-so-subtle, but oh-so-clever mystery.

‘Bones and Silence’ is a stunning mystery. The sleight of hand is so assured you are not even sure where or what the mystery is until the final chapters when everything comes into focus.

It is full of trademark Hill: wrong-footing; well-timed humour; sharp social observations and almost-author-intervention as he comments on how the characters are faring in the story. They are probably not the main traits one tends to associate with crime fiction writing, but that’s probably the appeal for me. Light on gore and action. It feels like writing from an old friend.

‘Bones and Silence’ is full of the things I love about Hill’s stories. Clever, university-educated Peter Pascoe always doubts his boss, Dalziel, is ever as clever as he makes out. So when Dalziel reckons he witnessed a murder, Pascoe spends his time trying (he thinks) to stop Dalziel making a fool of himself.

Dalziel, on the other hand, never underestimates Pascoe, tells him to concentrate his time on another suspected crime and bludgeons his way to the truth while Pascoe can only look helplessly on. He’s shocked at the end to acknowledge what he never wants to admit – that Dalziel is the smarter of the two.

We watch as the pair turn in ever decreasing circles, until it all comes clear what has really been going on. Just in time to watch Pascoe see all his certainty disappearing like mist. And of course the reader suddenly realises he should have spotted what was clear from the first moment. Only Hill muddies the waters so beautifully you never realise what you have seen until Dalziel points it all out to you.

‘Bones and Silence’ was also the first of Hill’s to win a ‘Gold Dagger’ award for crime fiction, so I’m obviously not alone in appreciating its qualities.

I first came across a Dalziel and Pascoe novel (as I remember) when I was a student, rummaging in a second hand book shop and drew out ‘Pictures of Perfection’ in which (as I remember), he kills off all his main characters within the first few chapters. Now let’s see you get out of that one, I thought. And he does, with breathtaking skill.

I did have the privilege to meet him once, not long ago. After having been a fan for so long and never having met him, I noticed he was making a rare appearance at the Harrogate Crime Fiction Festival. I organised long-distance transport, the children to be looked after and the shop covered (none of which are easy when you run a bookshop).

In hindsight I am so glad that we went to quite so much trouble, even though it felt we were being slightly mad at the time. I got to shake him by the hand.

I didn’t say how much I wanted to thank him for giving me so very many years of superb reading pleasure. I know I wanted to. But I remember pushing my book towards him for signing with a rather inane grin and probably mumbling something inadequate.

But at least I did get to meet him and I will always have that signed book to treasure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Joint Abingdon Schools' Author Visit 2012: The 2 Steves

One of the highlights of the year for us is getting involved with the annual Joint Abingdon School's Author Visits. These take place at different schools every year around Abingdon, are triumphs of organisation and logistics, and inspirational to boot as authors strut their stuff and inspire hundreds of children over multiple (and extremely intense) sessions throughout the day.
Following previous years spent in the company of Julia Golding and Marcus Sedgwick, this year it was the turn of the energetic writing duo The 2 Steves, aka Steve Barlow (or Barlow-beard as he likes to say, to distinguish him) and Steve Skidmore. They performed in front of over 500 children, covering a vast range of subjects that had their audience by turns enthralled, by turns snorting green stuff out of their nose with laughter.
They talked about the process of writing, the power, magic and creativity of writing, some interesting secrets about 'what it's like to be a boy', and a fair amount of grisly details from their iHorror, iHero and Luke Challenger books.

The 2 Steves are ex-teachers and know what kids want to hear. They have been writing for 20 years, and between them have written over 130 books. With a background in helping reluctant readers the books have a definite appeal to boys - but have plenty of fans of both genders.

(Incidentally, I'd have loved these books when I was growing up. I spent far more time than was healthy in the company of Steve Jackson's Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the rest of those 'choose your path' series, so the iHorror 'choose you fate' books would have been right up my street)

Once again, a big thank you to various schools for inviting us to run the bookshop on the day. And the 2 Steve's graciously gave us some time between sessions (whilst glugging tea and scoffing biscuits) to answer some questions about their writing life...

Five questions with . . . The 2 Steve's writing life

1. What are you working on at the moment?
(SB) We're currently been working for two years on a series called "Action Dogs" - sort of Thunderbirds meets Wallace and Grommit. (SS) These are going to be a lot of fun, superbly illustrated by Mark Chatterton, with a group of dogs living in a dog pound, and when the signal sounds, they disappear underground to get their gadgets - such as the bonecoptor - to rescue humans. The first one comes out in August.

2. What is the best writing tip you've ever been given?
(SS) Read lots. Don't give up. (SB) In terms of technical advice, it's a little bit different for us in that we write as a team. (SB) We always plan our books (usually from the end back) and we will bring different ideas together. (SB) We don't really understand writer's block (have you ever heard of a plumber having 'plumber's block?'). The other difference for us is that we tend to act as each other's editor - so our writing actually doesn't need too much editing at the end. For example, with the Luke Challenger series, once you get to the third book in the series (Return to King Solomon's Mines), you know the characters well, and aside from the plot twists, you are pretty confident the books will work.
We don't really have a writing style either - more a 'project' style. We write for our audience, and this reflects our background as both teachers - and teachers involved with getting dyslexic kids to read (both have written books for Barrington Stoke - http://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk/author.asp?mid=351

3. What's the best and worst thing about being a children's writer?
(SB) The best thing is being able to see how your book has been received, getting lots of feedback. Kids tend to be forthright and honest - but usually very generous. I think with adult writing you don't get that so much, perhaps a bit at literary festivals. (SS) You do many more talks with kids, often two or three a day, so the capacity is there for more feedback. The other thing which is quite liberating as a children's writer is that constraints you operate under are a strength. When writing an adventure, we can focus purely on the page-turning, exciting adventure of it all - without a lot of the baggage that comes with adult writing. If a character is nasty, they don't need to be foul-mouthed, for example.

(SB) One downside though is when an idea hasn't worked. You very soon know about it,  it becomes obviously very quickly because the kids tell you!

4. Do you have a writer's survival kit?
(SS) Not really. If anything, we are each other's survival kit! We're on the road so much, that we constantly spark off each other with ideas, and often editing/reviewing material. Particularly if a deadline is looming. But we tend to write at home. We are Mac boys, and even if we're not in the same room we'll use web cams to collaborate when we are writing.

5. What was your big breakthrough? 
(Both look a bit startled, and look at each other) I don't think we have one - we're still waiting!

Monday, February 13, 2012

A thunder and lightning romance


If you’re looking for a romantic read for Valentine’s Day, my recommend is for ‘The Man Who Rained’ by Ali Shaw.

This is a classy love story, full of atmospheric writing and an unusual romance set in a wind-blasted place, which is full of unexpectedly beautiful creatures – such as horses made of mist and water – and a stormy tale of two damaged people who heal when they come together.

Elsa Beletti, suffering after the death of her father in a lightning storm, seeks a fresh start and chooses somewhere remote and wild to cut herself off from the world. Thunderstown – a town with too many legends for anyone to remember them all. A town with secrets of its own and a people forever battling with the elements.

Elsa meets a strange local boy, living outcast and wild in the hills. What she doesn’t expect is that in Thunderstown, everyone believes the weather is alive – they fear the mountains to be slumbering gods and floods to be a vengeance.

Finn tells her he is part man, part weather and he is similarly feared. But Elsa, who has always looked at clouds as if they are a landscape that should be explored, not only believes him and isn’t afraid, but falls in love. But can she be safe with a man who believes he is only half-human?

The idea of someone being taken over by magic is a familiar theme to Ali Shaw. His debut, ‘The Girl with the Glass Feet’ was up for many awards, winning the Desmond Elliott prize. So this has been a long-awaited second novel for me.

I know my friend Annabel loved it and she always does brilliant reviews, so read her views here

Ali Shaw weaves his magical elements with skill and understanding. Is Finn really only made of weather? Or is everyone partly a victim of the elements? Ice makes him feel down, anger causes lightning strong enough to hurt people? It’s up to you what you believe.

This seemed less melancholy than his debut, but takes you on a similar journey of the imagination, with people escaping their pasts into landscape. When Finn is happy little wisps of cloud appear around his head. When the couple make love there are rainbows.

And who can resist a hero who insists he is a human form of a thunderstorm?

One of the things I particularly love is the sense of the town, nestling between barren mountains, full of small-town superstition and prejudice, its townsfolk looking everywhere for someone to blame for the harshness of their lives.

You can feel the rocks where grass should be. The wind that feels not like one, but many, ‘each wrestling to claim its own space and territory’.

There is a local culler, who is called upon when weather-filled animals intrude on the town – as if with enough determination they can all be exterminated and the town freed from being at the mercy of the elements.

Daniel, the culler, forms another thread of the romance of the story, which keeps the tangible elements ticking along with a good pace alongside the mystery and magic.

And I can certainly find time in my schedule for a book that features sunbeams that turn into birds. There is definitely something very magical about Ali Shaw’s writing.

I am delighted to say that Ali Shaw is soon coming to Abingdon as a guest of Abingdon Writers.

http://www.abingdonwriters.org/p/events.html

Abingdon is lucky to have such a lively supportive group that meets regularly for chat and critique and the group is actively seeking new members. So if you want to find out what they are all about, or hear Ali Shaw discussing his work, it would be great to see you there. We have tickets at Mostly Books.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Teach me to time travel

There are times when the only solution to problems would be a handy box (a bit like the TARDIS) in the back of the shop where you could pop down and time travel or clone yourself. 
But if you see some new faces in the shop today, rest assured it's nothing to do with weird science exeriments.
I think one of the biggest challenges of being a bookseller is that as well as all those little things you can’t forget (but can always do in your evenings): stock selection; events planning; newsletters; blogs; reviews; website; invoicing; accounts . . . you have to remember to keep the shop open to the public six days a week as well.
We consider ourselves lucky there isn’t much call in Abingdon for trade in the evenings, Sundays or bank holidays. But now both the boys are at school we have still learned to grab at being able to take time off with that same enthusiasm with which our children regard a long awaited chocolate cake.
But even with the fantastic staff we are lucky enough to have, there are days when illness or need to take time off coincide. Which is why I would be in the shop on my own today. Instead I have two new staff members –  my friends Sally and Jo.
When we do big school events it would be handy to clone yourself into about six people to cope with the rush of 300 children with seconds to spare before getting on the coach and only £1 short of the money for the book they want.
Luckily we often have Sally and Jo, and also Annabel, who al very kindly step in so that we can do a good job – and not forget to keep the shop running.
So, I have given Sally and quick run through of how to use the till, the huge list of tickets we are handling at the moment, our Valentine’s offer.
That’s enough training. She is now busy checking in all our deliveries.
It’s cold outside, but our red roses are lovely and have been going down very well. Even those who may be don’t have a particular special person to give one to are taking them to give to a friend to say thank you.
Where would we be without our friends?
I think Sally and Jo will definitely be the ones receiving a red rose from us today.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Martinis not champagne for me this valentine’s day

If you are popping into Mostly Books over the next few days, take a look at our gorgeous red roses courtesy of Fabulous Flowers (they are in the window). After last year's very positive comments we're repeating our Valentine's Day red rose offer: spend £25, and receive a free red rose worth £5.
And if you are looking for some inspiration - take a look at both of these favourite recommends...
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles £7.99
New York, 1930s. The cocktails are chilled, the jazz is playing and life is about to take off for young Katey Kontent.
New York is full of potential and possibility for a hardworking girl from a Russian immigrant family, especially one who has brains, an optimistic outlook and a nice line in witty one-liners.
Enter a millionaire, and apart from a friend who is competing for his attentions, it all looks set to be champagne and roses for Katey as her fairy tale takes off.
But events take unexpected turns. This is a story that draws you in and a heroine you can believe it. It's not all plain sailing, but Katey gets on with life, which is why I have picked this for my Valentine's Day read. Her journey from the typing pool to a glitzy magazine is greatly enjoyable.
The book has been compared it to 'Breakfast at Tiffanys' or Scott Fitzgerald with its beautiful Manhattan people, smoky jazz clubs and parties.
It's not the most desperately romantic recommend for the most romantic day of the year. But its good. Well written enough to not feel you are wasting your time on fluff, but still a light read, a bit of a wallow and a good reveal at the end. Film in production - no surprises there.

A Shed of One's Own by Marcus Berkman £12.99
If your loved one is of an age that he is starting to worry that his waistline is expanding as fast as his hairline is receding, try this tonic for bringing a chuckle or two.
Marcus Berkman has previously written about the strangeness of being a cricket lover, now turns his atttention to the strangeness of growing old.
He writes about the leisure activities he now finds he enjoys (National Trust anybody?). The indignities of not being able to read without glasses, even the decision to buy back all the old embarrassing CDs you shed on emerging from adolescence (vinyl anyone?).
Do we get cleverer as we get older or just heavier? Do all your old friends get nicer at reunions?
But mostly he just writes about the joys of being comfortable with yourself and allowing ambition to slide and contentment to arrive  in a positive and humorous way that only slightly makes him sound like a grumpy old man.
'We are complicated human beings and we need to be treated with kindness and respect and occasionally brought a nice cup of tea when we aren't expecting it.'
Someone pass that man a cuppa.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Finding a ‘good’ novel

What better premise can you start the new year with than a novel about a bookshop which is so successful jealous book trade folk start to take murderous steps against the owners?
The bookstore at the heart of the story opens in Paris (well you couldn’t quite imagine any of this happening in Abingdon – or could you?) and is determined to buck the trend of the almost inexorable drift towards the internet and supermarkets and the favouring of commercially-hyped authors who can succeed in that environment. 
‘The Good Novel’ bookstore promises a superb and alternative browsing experience by stocking only ‘good’ novels.
And that’s where the trouble starts – as how does anyone define a good book?
Owners (Ivan, a one-time world traveller, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress) decide to put together a list from a secret committee of writers. The resulting titles are almost all classics, some are tracked down by the owners who can only offer them for sale second hand. 
The list was one hundred and seventeen pages long. Two hundred and ninety-six titles had been mentioned eight times . . .  There were some astonishing omissions. Only one Victor Hugo, only one Heinrich Boll. Nothing by Jules Valles or Joseph Delteil, or Evelyn Waugh, or Anna Maria Ortese.’
It’s all very exciting. The trouble starts when very few new titles are taken and the literary establishment is less than pleased. Articles start appearing in the Press accusing it of elitism.
It all takes a turn out of bookselling angst into thriller, as the bookstore is targeted first in the Press. Then its supporters are injured and attacked in a series of bizarre incidents. 
But more than anything ‘The Novel Bookstore’ is an interesting read for anyone who fears for the future of the novel and I doubt many booksellers will be able to read this book and not reflect on how much it mirrors his/her own business. 
It sounds a little like Mostly Books! Although one main difference is that we also stock non-fiction and children’s books. And last time I looked we weren’t quite so successful people were trying to run us over in the street (be careful what you wish for).
That love of good books and the wanting to share – the hand-picking of titles, and the love of recommending the right read to the right person. There are certainly the reason a lot of independents out there are still in business.
It certainly made me realise how little I know of the book trade in other countries, or even of the key novelists of other nations. Or even how bookstores in France get their books delivered (fascinatingly different – they have to take all of a publisher’s new titles and have no ability to choose). 
There were certainly surprisingly few books chosen that were written in English. I’m sure lots of people will read it and feel they want to turn to someone and demand why no Dickens? Austen anyone? 
But at its heart it is a thought-provoking read about whether bookshops are destined, very soon, to become things of the past. And what their role should actually be if they are going to have a future.
When it launches ‘The Good Novel’ is welcomed and successful, but I did find a growing niggle with the fact that they were quite so picky about promoting new titles. Surely if, as a bookstore, you are concerned about the future of the novel, would you not be keen to stock new novels?
After all, persuading people to take a risk on a new author is one of the roles we see as important at Mostly Books. If you don’t take a few risks and encourage fresh blood, classics are all we’d ever read. Eventually.
The other element of the novel I struggled with was the fact that the owners assumed it would fail as a business, and one sub-plot is how the Italian heiress bankrupts herself to keep it going. Even though at every stage the description is of the shop being packed, its internet sales thriving and pressure from people abroad demanding a local version. 
On the surface it seemed like a sound business and it’s a little sad that even a novel in praise of bookselling assumes that it’s impossible to run a bookshop at a profit any more. (Which is not quite the same as saying that if you did it to make your fortune you’d need your head examined.)
Incredibly supportive customers are the lifeblood of our business – and Mostly Books is lucky to have so many. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to be there in a few years’ time and realise you were the last one to read the writing on the wall. Is there still a future in bookselling?
Now about to go into our sixth year, the retail environment grows ever tougher, as we endeavour to ride out a perfect storm of recession, digital growth and Internet dominance. Whatever discussions there on the recession, most seem to agree it will get worse in the short term.
But despite all this, sales of paper books are not in a massive decline. 
 The Good Novel’ definitely seemed to have something right in building a community of enthusiastic readers around its shop. It’s customers were all motivated to go there as they wanted to find something stimulating and worthwhile to read every time they came in, and to find expert recommendations and professional advice which they felt they weren’t getting from the internet or supermarket browsing.
It is still a joy for us to welcome customers both new and long-standing, who enjoy the serendipity of a browse – and who see the purchase of a book they know they are very likely to enjoy, as money well spent.
We are always finding new books to enthuse over and long to share – of which ‘A Novel Bookstore’ is definitely one.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

And the winners of Mostly Bookbrains for 2012 are...

We first held our Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiz back in November 2009, repeated it in 2010 - and then last year, deciding that November is far too busy and insane a period to try to hold a big quiz - we shifted it to February. It seems to been a popular move, as a record 100 people braved the chilly weather and packed into The Manor School Hall to do battle and be crowned "Mostly Bookbrains 2012".
The literary quiz was incredibly well supported: 14 teams competed to pit their collective wits on questions from the most recent chair of the Booker judges, to the name of the author of 'The Borrowers'.

This year we had rounds asking for identification of book illustrators, a Dickens round (of course) and the one that everyone seemed to score  highest on:  'name the book title from the following blurb'. The standard was incredibly high, but winning the entire contest and holding the prestigious Mostly Bookbrains trophy for this year were the 'Quiller Couches'. Well done to them for consistently high scoring throughout the whole evening.
Second were the 'Secret Seven' (pleased to see so many school librarians on that team). The 'Wednesday Wonders' also took home prizes as winner of the interval 'marathon' round.
But the winners of the evening were also the two local charities - The Abingdon Alzheimer's Club and SeeSaw Oxfordshire, which provides support for bereaved children and their families. Both charities were brilliantly supported by everyone's efforts on the evening. With entrance tickets, refreshments, book swap table and raffle together, over £900 was raised.

A big thank you must go to Judy Harris and her team from Abingdon Alzheimers who kept the bar open all evening and provided tasty refreshments to keep everyone's brains fed on a busy Friday evening. Thanks to them for all their hard work.

Thanks to Manor School for providing the venue free of charge for the third year running. And, as always, a big thank you to Annabel Gaskell for setting such a wide range of book-related questions and being quiz master and general organiser of the whole evening.
We have had some great feedback - and wonderful to meet book bloggers Yvann and Simon who were taking part. We certainly hope to see many of you again to take up the challenge next year. And yes, we promise to make the questions even more difficult (only kidding).

Friday, February 03, 2012

Cracking children’s books start the year

Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts £10.99
King Arthur is certainly enjoying something of a revival in children’s books at the moment and one I particularly enjoyed is this, which starts just after King Arthur is killed by his evil nephew Mordred.
Merlin goes to bring back Arthur’s only heir – a girl, Rhiannon – who was brought up in secret in enchanted Avalon – Merlin reveals her heritage and gives her the challenge of restoring Arthur’s soul to his body.
Feisty Rhiannon immediately wants to learn to fight, become a leader and a knight to avenge her father’s death – but at the same time as she must learn to become a princess.
It makes for an action-packed journey, enhanced by mist ponies, an enchanted harp-playing faerie and lots of quests, mystery and magic and Excalibur. Lots to enjoy with a great female lead and good use of the familiar Camelot setting and characters. A great adventure for 10+ that will probably give the Arthur story good appeal to girls.
The Court Painter's Apprentice by Richard Knight 5.99
Rich in historical detail, this is the story of 11-year-old Johann, taken on as an apprentice and moved away from his family to study with a master, Hugo. He has to cope with the jealousy of others in the workshop and hopes his abilities will start to speak for themselves. Only things start to get mysterious as this becomes a psychological thriller.
Johann realises that his paintings are more powerful than he realises when he notices that they have the power to change people. How he should use this power – or whether he should –  is part of the intrigue of this story.
Johann grows increasingly isolated and unhappy even having this unusual power in his hands. The tension builds well and eventually he has to use all his skills to save himself.
It’s an unusual story and really brings to life the world of an artist and his apprentice.
India Dark – Kirsty Murray £6.99
An intriguing backdrop of a real-life tour of young dancers from Australia sets up a story of the jealousies and rivalries that spiral out of control.
Setting sail is a troupe of (mostly) young women – from ten to seventeen, parted from their families, all heading for unknown tropical destinations with promise of fame and fortune in their heads and a chance to see exotic parts of the world in their heart.
But rivalries quickly break out – from star billing and best costumes, to who has the best room. The growing tensions are seen through the eyes of Poesy Swift – a sweet young thing on her first tour who has a lot to learn about the undercurrents that seethe beneath the greasepaint and public face of theatrical world.
The poisonous Tilly Sweetrick has been touring with the company for years and has set her sights on moving into a proper stage career once the tour is over. She starts scheming and to sow mistrust among the troupe.
As they realise their routines, costumes and equipment are out of date and no longer drawing the crowds, Tilly decides to act to bring the tour to a much quicker close, with devastating consequences.
The story is based on the real-life court case that followed a tour through the heart of India in 1910. As well as the searing setting of slow trains and sweaty hotels, there is plenty that modern readers will recognise in the feuds and rivalries that start to spiral between the girls.
It’s a great behind-the-scenes tale of how dreams can turn sour and would be a great read for teens who thinks that a life in the spotlight and the dangled promise of fame will be glamorous.
Twelve Minutes to     Christopher Edge             6.99
We are plunged straight into Sherlock Holmes territory with the mystery of why a new disease is spreading – a disease that forces people to write down their dreams.
Penny runs a magazine in turn of the century Britain and has penned terrifying short stories which have sent the magazine’s circulation soaring.
But Penny is a thirteen-year-old girl and she hires an actor to start meeting the public’s craving to meet the author.
Such is the fame of her pen name ‘Montgomery Flinch’ for his macabre stories, that when sinister happenings are troubling a doctor at the London hospital for the insane ‘Bedlam’ they call on the skills of Montgomery Flinch and Penny’s actor has to turn himself into a sleuth (with a lot of help from Penny).
It’s a terrific premise and Penny is a great, original creation.
The story cracks along with another youthful and female baddie, lots of spiders, lost Amazonian explorers, spider venom and a lust for riches at the heart of the story.
Penny, as a hugely successful writer, encounters other better-known literary giants. Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, H Rider Haggard,HG Wells in the story, which has some great twists.
I would have liked to have learned a lot more about Penny and what made her such a successful business woman and wordsmith – capable of writing such gruesome stories at such a tender age – but this is the first of a series, so I am sure we have a lot more to learn about Penny in future episodes. Looking forward to them.